Sunnyvale Starbucks workers feel exploited
Klara Daniaud, 21, stands in front of the Starbucks store where she works near the corner of Fremont and Mary avenues in Sunnyvale. Daniaud is one of the employees of the store working to unionize it. Photo by Joseph Geha.

Employees of a busy Starbucks store in Sunnyvale are working to unionize, joining a growing movement by workers at hundreds of the chain’s stores pushing back on what they call unfair and exploitative conditions.

Most of the 24 partners—what Starbucks calls its employees—at the store near South Mary and Fremont avenues have signed onto a letter sent earlier this month to the company’s former CEO Howard Schultz. The letter states they have filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to unionize with Starbucks Workers United.

“If they acted like they say they act, it would be a wonderful place to work,” Klara Daniaud, a partner and organizer at the Sunnyvale location, told San José Spotlight. “I believe in fair labor, I believe in workers’ rights.”

Daniaud said Starbucks appears to have purposefully understaffed shifts at the store in an effort to boost profits, and possibly to prevent some workers from crossing an hours threshold that would make them eligible for health benefits and other perks like paid tuition for online college courses.

With minimum wage pay around $18 per hour in Sunnyvale, workers say wages at the store are inadequate to pay rent or afford the cost of living in such an expensive region. Along with Starbucks’ actions preventing some employees from accessing benefits and shifting their hours unexpectedly, workers feel exploited, Daniaud said.

“If Starbucks advertises themselves to be a company you can grow with, they should absolutely reflect that in the way they treat us,” Daniaud said. “If there is a company in the world that can afford to staff and treat their employees properly, it’s Starbucks.”

A customer leaves the Starbucks store near Fremont and Mary avenues in Sunnyvale on March 22, 2023. Workers at the location are in the process of unionizing. Photo by Joseph Geha.

If the Sunnyvale workers ultimately vote to unionize, it would be the fifth Starbucks location in the greater Bay Area to do so, including one in Santa Clara, among nearly 300 that have done so across the country. Workers at smaller local cafes, such as Nirvana Soul, have also announced efforts to unionize in the last year.

Despite Starbucks having more than 36,000 stores worldwide and a record profit of nearly $22 billion in 2022, Daniaud and Dahlia Maldonado, another organizer at the Sunnyvale store, said the company is working aggressively to try to stop unionizing efforts across the country.

The company has shared what workers call inaccurate information about the Workers United union, which is affiliated with Service Employees International Union, and has sent district managers to stores to have one-on-one meetings with workers after stores go public about unionization efforts.

Some Sunnyvale workers said Starbucks has a pattern of changing its behavior once a unionization effort is made public. In Sunnyvale, Maldonado said employees have started seeing longstanding complaints about needed equipment being addressed and their hours increased, after months of being ignored or told budgets wouldn’t allow for those issues to be corrected.

Difficult working conditions

Daniaud, 21, and Maldonado, 24, said they both are full-time students who live with their families because they cannot afford rent on the wages they make at Starbucks. They said the unionization effort is not aimed at vilifying the company.

“It’s not about putting a target on anyone’s back, it’s just really creating an environment that is less dehumanizing and more open to recognizing and acknowledging the value in the partners that create the profit for the company,” Maldonado told San José Spotlight.

A Starbucks corporate spokesperson said the company has announced nearly $1 billion in “partner-focused investments” over the past year, including increases in wages, broader tipping availability, increases in sick time accrual ratios, student loan debt programs and savings plans for partners.

“We believe our direct relationship as partners is core to the culture and experiences we create in our stores. We recognize that a subset of partners feel differently—and we respect their right to organize and to engage in lawful union activities,” the spokesperson said. “Should partners at our Fremont & Mary store in Sunnyvale vote in favor of union representation, we look forward to meeting Workers United in-person to begin the single-store collective bargaining process.”

The letter from the Sunnyvale workers was sent to Schultz before he stepped down as interim CEO, handing the reins to Laxman Narasimhan. The letter claims the company has failed to live up to its stated values of supporting its employees.

“We’re exhausted and overworked, we lack the hours we’re promised and we struggle to make ends meet,” it said. “Every corner you’ve cut, we’ve paid for.”

Schultz is set to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee over his company’s action in response to unionization efforts at stores around the country.

The National Labor Relations Board has issued more than 70 official complaints against Starbucks, according to Starbucks Workers United, for more than 1,300 violations of federal labor law.

Starbucks Workers United called the company’s behavior “a ruthless union-busting campaign,” including the firing of more than 200 union organizers across the country, with 11 in California, and the closing of some unionized stores.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, chair of the senate labor committee, said in a statement that Starbucks needs to “end illegal anti-union activities” and bargain in good faith with the stores that have unionized.

“Let’s be clear. In America, workers have the constitutional right to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining to improve their wages and working conditions. Unfortunately Starbucks, under Mr. Schultz’s leadership, has done everything possible to prevent that from happening,” Sanders said.

Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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