By Jennifer Lenz

I thought true social change was just a pipe dream.

Throughout the past two years, the cracks that already existed in society have begun to crumble and show us who we are and what we’re willing to do as a society — and not do. Many of the issues we are seeing brought to the surface by employees already existed, they were just exacerbated during the pandemic. However, throughout the pandemic, we have also begun to see more people using their collective power as workers to fight for better pay, conditions, and benefits.  I’ve always wanted to be part of something that inspires social change, but I never thought I would actually be able to do anything — until I was inspired and it changed everything.

I’ve always wanted to be part of something that inspires social change, but I never thought I would actually be able to do anything — until I was inspired and it changed everything.

I don’t think I fully understood the power of the labor movement until I heard about the unionization efforts at Starbucks, starting in Buffalo, NY. When I listened to the grievances of other Starbucks workers (like me) who were experiencing the same hazardous working conditions, broken equipment, and harassment. 

For example, at my last store, broken floor tiles, left unfixed for months, caused workers to trip and fall. To save space in the tight quarters in the back-of-house, the manager stacked boxes of product on top of the freezers; the boxes ended up falling on top of an employee’s head, causing a concussion and resulting in long-term nerve damage which will cause chronic head and neck pain for the rest of their life. There have been injuries from broken equipment spurting boiling hot water on a worker’s hand, resulting in third-degree burns.

Then there’s harassment from customers who take out their anger on the nearest barista.

Worse is the abuse from management, who call partners weak and too slow. We’ve been gaslighted by upper management, who make you doubt yourself and plant doubt into your coworkers. They make changes on a whim because “it’s standard,” but when asked to show proof of exactly where the standard can be found they admit, “that information is only accessible to store managers.” We endure all of this while still not making enough to afford housing and groceries (even working full-time).

Unfortunately, there are a lot of inappropriate and dangerous situations that have never been properly handled or addressed, such as dozens of incidents involving an individual that we were promised would be banned from our cafe, yet no action was ever taken.  I realized my problems, and the problems my store was having, were also the problems other baristas were facing all across the country. I started following the news stories and the SBWorkersUnited Twitter feed, and eventually, it led me to a community of like-minded baristas on Reddit, Discord, and Slack. 

Talking to other cafe workers online finally gave me the courage to talk to my coworkers and see how they were feeling too. The relationships I have with my coworkers is why I love my job. My coworkers are the reason I want a union. I want what is best for us. 

How could Corporate possibly know what is best for us if they don’t even know us? Corporate can’t, but a union, our own union, can. They seem to be moving things along and continuing to reward bonuses to upper management and giving out gold stars to their customers at the expense of blood, sweat, tears and spreading coronavirus to their employee

It’s been amazing to see Starbucks workers stand up for themselves and support each other. I believe that we can make things better with a union. I have never felt like my voice has mattered the past two years I have worked at Starbucks. But, I believe it will be heard with a union. When I started organizing, my voice mattered because we were able to talk about what solutions for our store would look like. 

When I started organizing, my voice mattered because we were able to talk about what solutions for our store would look like. 

The more I learn, the more I am beginning to learn that workers do have the power to incite change. I think I was lucky with my coworkers though; every one of us was in support of a union. In the beginning, some were hesitant and unsure, but after a few more conversations where we listened and addressed their fears, they were on board. 

My cafe was also in a unique position to be able to have these discussions openly at work, because for months we had no manager. Having no leadership in the building was basically an invitation to talk about union stuff whenever we wanted (we got lucky). 

The rest of the process involved figuring out who among us had the motivation and the time and capacity to take on more tasks to get the ball rolling. We then formed a private chat group for all the workers & another chat group for an organizing committee. We got in contact with union organizers and had a lot of Zoom meetings; turns out, that’s a lot of what organizing is. 

The best part about organizing is the in-person meetings with your fellow workers, who are now your friends because it just feels like you’re hanging out and changing the world at the same time, which is really awesome!

Workers have more power than ever to fight for what they deserve — but almost all of the things workers are asking for are all things that should be considered a human right. I don’t think it’s that much of a boast for corporations to offer health coverage, retirement benefits, parental leave, sick pay — that should be the bare minimum at any job (however, those kinds of benefits are hard to find). What we are asking for is an immediate recognition of our union, a progressive reform in labor practices, benefits for all and workplace democracy for all.