Starbucks workers at over 150 stores in the U.S. are striking with pride in response to the company’s decision to ban Pride decorations at many stores across the country. The strike, which kicked off at the roastery location in Seattle, now encompasses nearly 4,000 workers across all participating stores.
The company has even hired Pinkerton agents from the historic union-busting firm, known for its extreme violence and massacres against union workers, to surveil and intimidate picket lines. But this has emboldened the striking workers and removed the progressive veneer the company paints for itself to the public.
Workers World covered the Starbucks/Pinkerton connections in an earlier article. (workers.org/2022/08/66051/)
Starbucks bosses claim that there has been no change in policy compared to previous years and that they are leaving the matter to local management to decide how, or whether, to decorate. However, testimonies from management have revealed that regional-level decisions were handed down to local managers instructing them to pull the Pride decorations, including in many stores where they had previously been allowed to go up.
This has been corroborated by hundreds of shift supervisors and workers across the country, who testify that this is the very first year they’ve been told they can’t display them. Videos have emerged on social media of management taking down Pride decorations which were already up and on display.
It’s very obvious to workers and customers alike that there is a difference in policy, and this is the basis for the union’s Unfair Labor Practice strike — this was a unilateral change in policy without first bargaining with workers. Regardless of what the company claims, the observable truth is that Starbucks has made a concerted effort to remove Pride decorations during Pride month, at a time when the LGBTQ+ community is under attack across the country.
‘The straw that broke the camel’s back’
But the banning of Pride decorations was only the straw that broke the camel’s back. There is a history of much more sinister anti-LGBTQ+ actions taken by Starbucks, particularly since the start of the union campaign. The company has zeroed in on many queer and trans workers in cities across the country, targeting them for corporate harassment, write-ups and especially firings. Of the hundreds of workers illegally fired for their union activity, LGBTQ+, Black and Brown workers have faced the brunt of the company’s repression.
In addition to firings, Starbucks has leveraged its own benefits against LGBTQ+ workers. Starbucks has offered various types of coverage for gender-affirming health care procedures, which were then held hostage against workers after the launch of the union campaign. Many LGBTQ+ workers were told that if they voted for the union, they might lose their coverage — the implication being “vote no, or we take it away.” Many of these procedures can be lifesaving, and for Starbucks to hold them over trans workers’ heads is violent and coercive.
As if the threat of losing health care coverage weren’t enough, workers across the country (especially LGBTQ+ workers) have faced huge cuts in hours, dropping many people under the 20 hour-per-week minimum needed to maintain part-time benefits like health coverage, among other things.
These cuts are a concerted effort to speed up turnover among the workforce, weeding out union supporters. Workers are unable to afford their rent and expenses, many losing health and school benefits, and are taking on huge debts or going without treatment and are ultimately forced to find new jobs.
Union contracts can protect LGBTQ+ benefits
Starbucks has proven it will turn any threat into a promise in order to stop the workers from organizing. But so far, workers have only fought back harder. Workers have made the point that without a contract, any benefits for LGBTQ+ workers can be taken away with a moment’s notice. Only a contract with built-in provisions for LGBTQ+ workers, guaranteed hours among other things, can safeguard these rights at work. Starbucks is still continuing to delay and refuse to bargain with the 300+ stores demanding a contract.
In Seattle, the home of the multinational coffee corporation, Starbucks has simultaneously banned Pride decorations, while paying Seattle official Pride organizers hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove the union’s ad against union busting from Seattle’s Pride Guide. The ad was created by a trans Starbucks worker who was fired for his union activity, one of many LGBTQ+ union supporters targeted by the company’s purges. (workers.org/2023/06/71498/)
How is it possible that Starbucks can ban Pride decorations, cut gender-affirming health care, fire LGBTQ+ workers en masse and still they get to take control of Pride publications, march in Pride parades and win awards as a “pro-LGBTQ+” company?
Starbucks previously took a stance of banning “Black Lives Matter” pins and T-shirts, a decision which was later revised after pressure from the public and the workers, after a string of high-profile racist lynchings by police. Starbucks sanitized this messaging and incorporated it into “company-friendly” BLM gear, but the cynical adoption of these values only makes the hypocrisy of its actions more glaringly obvious when they don’t live up to it.
How can Starbucks embrace the movement for Black lives while carrying out racist mass firings of Black and Brown union supporters, including the Memphis 7?
Starbucks is only one of many corporations, like Target, who used rainbow Pride displays to market themselves and make money off the LGBTQ+ community but caved in to LGBTQ+-phobic pressure, when the war against LGBTQ+ people has been ramped up across the country.
These companies aren’t interested in championing the cause of LGBTQ+ liberation — they are only interested in rainbow capitalism — they want to use LGBTQ+ identities as a marketing gimmick to advertise their products. But just like Starbucks caves to the pressures of social reaction and removes its rainbow advertisement, they can be pressured by the power of the working class.
If you want to support Starbucks Workers United, please sign the “No Contract, No Coffee!” pledge here: crm.broadstripes.com/ctf/SJID0H
Arjae Red is a bisexual nonbinary former Starbucks worker in Buffalo, New York, and an organizer with Starbucks Workers United.