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Sen. Bernie Sanders

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) waves to supporters at a campaign rally on July 26, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. The senator's presidential campaigns have been credited with inspiring the union drive taking place at Starbucks stores across the United States. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)"

Inspired by Bernie Movement, Starbucks Workers Gain Steam

"It looks like Starbucks workers are ready for an economic, political, and social revolution," said a top advisor for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Julia Conley

With direct ties to Sen. Bernie Sanders' people-powered presidential campaigns, the push for workers' rights at Starbucks stores is "spreading like wildfire," said one observer as the National Labor Relations Board on Friday ordered union elections at three more locations of the coffee chain in Western New York, weeks after workers at two stores in the area made history by unionizing.

"The spark was the win at a Starbucks in Buffalo. The kindling was the thousands of Bernie supporters that Starbucks has hired over the years."

The board will send ballots to workers at three stores in the Buffalo area on January 31. Votes will be due February 22 and the NLRB is expected to announce the results the following day. If the union drive is successful, the stores will join the Elmwood Avenue location in Buffalo and the Genesee Street location in nearby Cheektowaga as the first unionized Starbucks stores in the United States—with more likely to follow.

"If these three Buffalo stores vote to unionize, 100 new workers would become Starbucks union members," tweeted Lauren Kaori Gurley, who covers labor issues for Vice. "Starbucks' first union victory last year was a historic milestone, but the cascade of unionizing stores could be the big labor story of 2022, especially if the movement spreads to other chains."

The NLRB announced the new elections as the New York Times reported that many of the organizers at Starbucks locations in Buffalo and across the country were involved in grassroots campaigning for Sanders, whose rallying call to "fight for someone you don't know" became a theme of his 2020 presidential run.

"I've been involved in political organizing, the Bernie Sanders campaign," Brick Zurek, who is leading a push to unionize a Starbucks in Chicago, told the Times.

Len Harris, a pro-union employee in Denver, said, "I admire the progressivism, the sense of community" fostered by political figures like Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

While Starbucks has launched an aggressive anti-union campaign at its stores since the first union petition was filed in Buffalo in August, the Times reported, the $19 billion company appears to have inadvertently "built a workforce that is more inclined to unionize and to be energized by the Buffalo campaign" by recruiting progressive employees over the years to "reinforce" its brand.

"The spark was the win at a Starbucks in Buffalo," tweeted Times reporter Noam Schreiber of the nationwide push toward unionizing at the chain. "The kindling was the thousands of Bernie supporters that Starbucks has hired over the years."

As Buffalo-area workers told Sanders at a virtual town hall hosted by the senator last month ahead of the first union election, they are calling on the company to give them a say in deciding wages, pay scales that keep up with seniority, and sufficiently staffed stores.

Along with workers in Buffalo, Starbucks employees in Mesa, Arizona are also preparing to vote on joining a union later this month, while petitions have been filed with the NLRB by at least 15 other stores in cities including Knoxville, Tennessee; Seattle; Boston; and Cleveland, Ohio.

On Twitter Friday, Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) posted a photo of herself with pro-union Starbucks workers in the Chicago suburb of La Grange and Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb expressed solidarity with employees who could become the chain's first unionized workers in Ohio.

The company has reportedly begun repeating anti-union tactics it used in Buffalo at the store in Mesa, sending officials to the location and "intimidating" workers, according to the Times. In Buffalo, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz held a meeting where he discouraged workers from voting for a union.

Workers United, the affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that workers are seeking to join, also accused the company of "packing" stores, a common union-busting tactic in which management hires or transfers new employees just before an election to dilute support.

Despite those obstacles, longtime Sanders adviser Warren Gunnels said Friday that it "looks like Starbucks workers are ready for an economic, political, and social revolution."

While Sanders did not win the presidency in 2016 or 2020, tweeted the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, his campaigns "are paying off dividends in labor organizing."

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