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Meet the 20-Year-Old Who Unionized a Vancouver Starbucks

Secrecy, suspicion and Steelworkers. Inside an organizing drive at the anti-union coffee chain.

Zak Vescera 10 May

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

It started when Frédérique Martineau had a bad day at work.

Martineau was working a tough shift at the Starbucks on 29th and Dunbar in an affluent part of Vancouver’s west side. The store was understaffed. Martineau, the supervisor, said she couldn’t even take breaks. “I didn’t have time. So I would just give my breaks to the baristas working with me,” she said.

She and a colleague got talking, and an idea popped up. What if they unionized?

Months later, Martineau’s workplace became the first Starbucks in Vancouver to successfully unionize since the late 2000s, part of a new wave of labour organizing at the coffee giant’s stores across North America.

Martineau, 20, led the campaign in secret. Her store is just the fourth in all of British Columbia to be represented by United Steelworkers Local 2009, which hopes to mobilize more baristas across the province.

But unionizing a Starbucks is no easy thing. The company is opposed to union organizing.

When it learned of the campaign, Martineau said she and her colleagues were interrogated.

Since successfully unionizing in February, they’ve been denied a significant annual raise Starbucks has given to all its non-union employees in British Columbia. The union has filed a complaint at the Labour Relations Board alleging this is an unfair labour practice.

The Tyee reached out to Starbucks for comment but did not hear back.

But Martineau has no regrets. She says working conditions at the shop have already improved. And she believes organizing will help win better rights for the people making your morning coffee.

“I think only good can come from it in the long term,” Martineau said.

How to unionize a Starbucks

It wasn’t Martineau’s first time working at Starbucks.

Her first experience with the company was a summer job between Grade 11 and 12 near her hometown in the San Francisco Bay Area. She kept working when school resumed and became a supervisor. “People were yelling and screaming at me,” she said.

She recalls one incident when the mall she worked in was placed on lockdown. Police instructed people to shelter in place over the loudspeaker. But Martineau’s boss told her to go and empty the cash register.

There has been a growing union drive at U.S. Starbucks. As of December, employees at more than 300 locations have organized, with the campaigns often led by younger workers who typically have not been represented in the labour movement.

Martineau was not a die-hard labour organizer. She took the Starbucks job because she enjoys the work and wanted to earn money while attending nursing school.

But she had previously worked at BC Liquor, where she was represented by the BC General Employees' Union, and had guaranteed breaks and other working rights. She and her friend resolved to contact the United Steelworkers Local 2009.

Then, Martineau said, her colleague backed out. That left her alone heading a secret campaign to organize the store.

“They said ‘build an inside committee.’ I was like ‘I am the inside committee. Me. This is it. This is what we’ve got,’” Martineau remembered.

In B.C., workplaces are automatically unionized if organizers can get signatures from at least 55 per cent of employees at a given worksite. If they sign up 45 to 55 per cent, a vote is required to see if a majority of employees want to unionize.

In theory, employers are forbidden from interfering with the process.

But Starbucks has been notoriously tough on organizers. In the United States, Starbucks has come under fire and faced congressional examination for allegedly firing staff involved in unionization bids.

At her Vancouver store, Martineau said the manager told her and other staff that they would be required to inform the company immediately if they so much as heard a whisper about unionization.

That meant Martineau had to act secretly and carefully. She made a list of all her colleagues and separated them into three columns: Yes, No and Maybe. Then, she started approaching them one by one.

“What I did is I would wait a few days in between, just in case someone would rat me out,” Martineau said. She said many of her colleagues had never been part of a union before, or even knew what it was for. Many were apprehensive.

“Most of them would say ‘I don’t even know what a union is. Why would I do that?’” Martineau said. But she gradually succeeded in convincing more to sign on.

Martineau was in a nursing class when she learned they had been discovered. “I got a panic text from a co-worker saying ‘They know, everyone is here,’” Martineau said.

The local district manager was at the Starbucks along with other senior staff, she said, sitting down co-workers one by one and grilling them about the union bid. Martineau said one of the first people they spoke with was a 17-year-old who, to her knowledge, knew absolutely nothing about it.

“Bless his soul, I think he trapped them in a 45-minute meeting,” Martineau said.

Martineau believes the response was meant to intimidate staff, but it had the opposite effect. She said four or five people approached her to sign cards after the effort.

“They were so angry. They were like, why is Starbucks doing this?” Martineau said.

Shortly after, the store’s 22 employees successfully filed to the BC Labour Relations Board, which certified their union in February.

In Canada, a slow start

The union drive at Starbucks in Canada has been far slower and quieter than the United States.

In B.C., for example, just four Starbucks locations have unionized since the summer of 2020, including Martineau’s. Of those, just one has a collective agreement.

Jonathan Karmazinuk, a staff representative with the United Steelworkers, believes that’s partially because of the company’s hardball approach to bargaining. “They don’t want a union and they don’t want more unionized stores in Canada.”

After the first store in Victoria organized, Karmazinuk said the company announced that it would not give unionized employees the same annual pay raise it did to everyone else as contract negotiations were underway.

Karmazinuk said they did the same thing to workers at the Dunbar Street location in Vancouver, even though the pay raise was announced months before they filed for union certification. The Steelworkers have contested that at the BC Labour Relations Board.

Karmazinuk says unions like his also fumbled early attempts to organize those shops. Normally, Karmazinuk says the Steelworkers take a central role in organizing drives. They invite workers down to the union hall and build a campaign from the top down. But Starbucks stores often have high turnover, small teams and relatively young staff.

“It doesn’t work for these folks. These people are on social media, they text more than they talk on the phone, they’re using different apps like Signal or Discord or what have you,” Karmazinuk said. He said the Steelworkers have since shifted their approach.

“I know from a strategy perspective that instead of us going out and organizing a bunch of stores, we’re letting the workers just talk to each other,” Karmazinuk said. “We’re taking more of a supportive goal. We’re asking, ‘What do you want to achieve in bargaining?’”

Karmazinuk suspects the future of Starbucks organizing in B.C. will hinge on what kind of deal the Steelworkers can win at the table.

So far, only the Douglas Street Starbucks in Victoria has signed a collective agreement with the company. That deal guarantees baristas a wage scale that started with minimum wage and caps out at $17.67. The wage scale for supervisors ranges from $19.22 to $21.56. Starbucks has guaranteed non-union employees $1 above minimum wage.

Karmazinuk said the union’s goal is to win a better collective agreement for workers at their other locations. The Steelworkers have also considered attempting a regional bargaining approach to unite multiple stores under the same contract, although they have not committed to that.

“I think if we can really empower the workers and if we can give them the tools and the skills they need, [organizing] will pick up,” Karmazinuk said. “I think part of that is that we need to get a better collective agreement. We have to do better than Victoria.”

Meanwhile, at the Starbucks on Dunbar, Martineau says some things have already changed for the better. The store has new equipment and better working conditions. But they’ve hinted they might close the Dunbar location, even though Martineau says it’s as busy as ever.

“I think it’s a little uncertain right now,” she said. But she still likes her job. “I love making the drinks. I like talking to people. I have so much fun doing that,” she said.

Her advice to anyone thinking of unionizing their Starbucks or similar workplace? Go for it.

“If you’re by yourself, like I was, do your best. It’s either going to happen or it’s not,” she said.  [Tyee]

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