Partners working at the 1085 West 5th Avenue Starbucks had worked side-by-side in cramped quarters through the entire COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet the day before their scheduled in-person unionization vote earlier this month, Starbucks corporate leadership suddenly felt it was unsafe for workers to be together in the same building.

Starbucks’ corporate offices filed an emergency motion with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) asking the election be rescheduled due to safety concerns. A Starbucks partner – what Starbucks calls their employees – at the West 5th location had tested positive for coronavirus, and the unionization vote was temporarily suspended.

However, concerns for safety subsided immediately following the NLRB ruling. All partners were back at work the next day. It was immediately clear to all that the motion to delay the vote was an intentional effort by management to derail unionization efforts. The vote has been rescheduled as a mail-in.

“We would have crushed it, easily,” recalled one union organizer.

Partners at the West 5th location had been meeting regularly since filing their motion to unionize on January 28 of this year. Partners were printing resources for each other and working on their understanding of the sometimes frustrating legal minutiae surrounding the NLRB regulated unionization process. They also worked to deepen their interpersonal relationships.

This approach has served them well in withstanding near constant anti-union pressure from both district management and national corporate leadership. Following the temporary suspension of the unionization vote, organizers for the West 5th Starbucks requested that the in-person vote be rescheduled at the earliest possible moment. Immediately, if feasible.

Instead, Starbucks corporate leadership negotiated directly with the NLRB in a process that cut out pro-union organizers completely. Direct collaboration between Starbucks and the NLRB resulted in the vote being rescheduled as a mail-in ballot.

Mail-in ballot votes for unionization are subject to NLRB oversight. Ballots must be mailed individually to all workers at the location that has filed a motion for unionization. This means that the address on file for every worker must be current. Delivery and return of ballots through the US postal service may take a variable amount of time, but the deadline for those ballots to be returned and counted is absolutely fixed. In addition, there are a variety of  technicalities that can be used to disqualify individual ballots, including signature verification and the presence of stray or unclear marks.

In a location with perhaps 26 partners, every single ballot is essential. Pro-union organizers have had to shift gears quickly after the cancellation of the in person vote. Suddenly, they needed to become experts on the mail in ballot process and distribute this information quickly among all partners to ensure an accurate count of the vote.

The deadline for all ballots to be received by the NLRB is April 14. Votes will be counted and the results announced on April 17.

Following the April 17 unionization vote, pro-union organizers at the West 5th location plan to join with the national Starbucks unionization effort to negotiate a single unified contract for all unionized locations.

The West 5th avenue Starbucks is among the busiest and highest earning in the city. A store built for maximum efficiency, the quarters are so tight that partners refer to the location as “the box.”

The store handles near constant business from the surrounding high income neighborhoods, including drive through, mobile, online, and delivery orders. Daily work can be extremely stressful, and wages are well below the average for the surrounding area.

“Anytime someone comes through the line and gives us a sign of solidarity, whether it’s an extra tip or words of support, it really boosts all our spirits,” said the organizer.

This sense of struggle, the struggle to build a union or simply the struggle to get through another shift, has galvanized strong bonds among the partners at the small store. “Despite all the setbacks, we all believe we’re gonna win,” the organizer said.


David Hill is a member of the Mike Gold Writer’s Collective. He follows labor, housing, policing, and other issues.