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Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally for jobs.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) gestures during a rally for jobs on December 7, 2016 at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sanders Applauds Buffalo Starbucks Workers for Union Drive to 'Fight for What's Right'

The senator spoke with employees about their demands for a fair pay structure and the union-busting efforts they've witnessed from the international coffee chain.

Julia Conley

Calling more than 100 Starbucks employees in the Buffalo, New York area "an inspiration" for their unionization drive, Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday night gave voice to the workers' concerns about unfair practices at the international coffee chain, talking to several of them at a virtual town hall days before they are set to find out if their efforts will result in a union.

Sanders hosted the hour-long town hall from Washington, D.C., talking with four employees about their experiences working at the company, the deterioration of worker benefits that they've noticed over the past several years, and the union-busting attempts they've witnessed since filing for a union election in August.

"Last year, Starbucks had enough money to pay its CEO, Kevin Johnson $14.7 million in total compensation. That's over 1,200 times what they pay their average employee."

"Let me just say," the Vermont independent senator told the workers, "you're an inspiration to me... Especially after a day at the United States Senate, it is a pleasure to see folks stand up and fight for what's right, for justice, for workers' rights."

Sanders pointed out that the workers are fighting to have a say in wages, pay scales that keep up with seniority, and sufficiently staffed stores at a company which reported a record $29 billion in sales in its 2021 fiscal year.

"Starbucks is not a poor company," said Sanders, who also used the town hall to call for the passage of the PRO Act, which would protect the right to form a union. "Last year, Starbucks had enough money to pay its CEO, Kevin Johnson, $14.7 million in total compensation. That's over 1,200 times what they pay their average employee."

Buffalo-area employees Michelle Eisen, who is leading the unionization effort; Lexi Rizzo; Gianna Reeve; and Maya Panos spoke about what they called "a very clear shift" in recent years at Starbucks regarding how the company values its workers.

"I have a partner who has been with the company for 17 years," Reeve told Sanders. "She is in the same position as me, I'm a shift supervisor. She has almost two decades of experience and she makes a little over a dollar more than me—that is unacceptable."

When the senator asked why Reeve thought Starbucks—which for decades has boasted tuition reimbursement, health insurance, and other staff perks—would structure the pay with few benefits for long-term employees, she said, "Perhaps they want the turnover to be high" so that the company doesn't have to actually provide those benefits to newer workers—a trend that Reeve said leads numerous employees to rely on Medicaid.

Sanders also questioned the employees about the conduct they've witnessed from their employer as the union vote draws near. Last month, as the National Labor Relations Board began sending ballots out to workers, the company attempted to delay the election and sent former CEO and powerful shareholder Howard Schultz to hold an anti-union meeting at a Buffalo hotel.

Panos described smaller weekly meetings taking place in Buffalo-area stores until recently in which corporate employees have explicitly told workers to vote against forming a union.

The company's so-called "support partners" talk to workers about how unionization is "going to ruin our work environment, how it's going to ruin our 'partner experience'," said Panos. "It's a real gray zone between whether [the meetings are] mandatory or not; it's almost like peer pressuring you to go."

Eisen also described the company's union-busting efforts, saying the Buffalo area has been "inundated with corporate from all over the country."

"We know that they're there unfortunately to surveil us and to prevent us from doing the work that we'd like to do," Eisen said.

Sanders' town hall came two days before workers are required to submit their union ballots to the NLRB. Votes are scheduled to be counted on Thursday afternoon.

"It is my very strong view that if a worker wants to join a union, it is his or her constitutional right to be able to do so," said Sanders, "and we've got to change the law to make that a reality."

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