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More Starbucks Stores Across LA County Are Unionizing; Here’s Why

A person opens a door to walk into the store. A sign with green lettering overhead reads "Starbucks."
A customer enters a Starbucks in California.
(Justin Sullivan
Getty Images)
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A Starbucks store in Little Tokyo is the latest Los Angeles County location to join a wave of unionization efforts across the national coffee chain.

On Wednesday, employees at the store sent a letter declaring their intent to form a union. The letter was posted to Twitter by Starbucks Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

The store joins half a dozen others in the state — three each in Northern and Southern California — bringing the total of L.A. stores that have filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to four. The first location to unionize locally was the Mason and Lassen store in Chatsworth, which filed on Feb. 2. About a month later, two stores in Lakewood and Long Beach made their intentions to unionize public.

Jesse De La Cruz, a shift supervisor at the Second and Central store, said he’s had his sights set on unionizing since transferring to the location around September.

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“I was very open with my manager when I transferred over to her store. I told her when I do get the option to unionize our store I'm going to go for it,” said De La Cruz, who also serves on the union committee.

De La Cruz has worked at Starbucks for more than four years and said the work environment has gone “downhill” during his time.

“What really prompted me coming to the store was seeing that one of my partners — she has been working there for 29 years — and she basically was forced to be demoted from shift [supervisor] to barista,” he said.

De La Cruz said his staff has become more stressed and overworked and that he hopes unionizing will provide some relief by giving them the respect and protection they deserve.

Company “Jitters”

Employees have been announcing their plans to seek a union through Workers United, which has tweeted letters of intent addressed to the company’s CEO — formerly Kevin Johnson, who announced his retirement on Wednesday. Howard Shultz, who led the company previously for three decades, has replaced him as interim CEO.

The unionizing stores have expressed discontent with Starbucks’ current operations. Their letters have raised issues of pay equity, fair scheduling and union-busting. The company is facing legal actions on multiple fronts tied to the work environment and treatment of pro-union employees.

The NLRB filed a formal complaint on Tuesday against Starbucks over accusations of retaliation against two employees in Phoenix. Workers United has brought more than 20 charges of unfair labor practices to the NLRB for stores across the United States. A spokesperson for Starbucks said in an emailed statement that the “claims of anti-union activity are categorically false.”

In L.A. County, Long Beach and Lakewood employees called out the company in their letters for allegedly separating pro-union partners and “manipulating information.” But the unionization process has also brought a sense of community, according to some workers.

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Josie Serrano, a barista who’s worked at Starbucks for four years, is helping lead the effort in Long Beach alongside Lakewood. While both stores were considering a union separately, Serrano teamed up with Tyler Keeling, a barista trainer who’s on his store’s union committee.

“There was a growing understanding that this was so much bigger than just like a small chunk of us,” Serrano said in an interview. “It was not only our store, not only Tyler’s store but the entire country.”

Serrano and Keeling, who have different managers, took pains to say that they hold an immense amount of respect and appreciation for their store’s leaders — but the union effort is tied to issues outside of their scope.

“[My manager] has bent over backwards to support us and make sure we feel taken care of as partners in our store, but she is a finite resource in a company that has very strict ways of things happening,” Keeling said. “And nothing she can do can change that she is one person in a bigger company, and a chain of command.”

The L.A. County stores are at different stages of unionization — the Chatsworth location is waiting for its election date while the store in Little Tokyo and others are still preparing for their first hearing date. Workers United expects more stores in L.A. to join the union drive.

“I feel it’s just like jitters, right? It's all new,” De La Cruz said. “I can't believe it's finally happening.”

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