Role-Playing Dinner Theaters Are Now Organizing Amid The Starbucks Saga

by | Jul 28, 2022 | CWA, NLRB, Union Organizing

Those headline-making union drives at Starbucks largely ignore the big picture of organized labor, including dwindling total union membership and petition numbers that aren’t (yet) breaking records. Still, no one can deny that the new toolbox of organizing strategies attracts attention, and those union successes motivate other frustrated workers (at the same company or even across the street) to seek representation.

The New York Times recently published a feature article saying college-educated workers (including a Rhodes scholar who became a leader in the Starbucks barista effort) are fueling momentum for union drives. Their motivation, according to a NYT labor reporter, fits with a “tradition” of radically political people who go into jobs with the specific intent of organizing their workplace. These workers (i.e. “salts”) are educated and frustrated and wish to effect change, and their efforts motivate others.

These workers are empowered by the tight labor market and the current economic situation. Yet whether these organizing firebrands can work long-term change remains to be seen. That same uncertainty applies to the Starbucks saga itself:

  • CEO Howard Schultz published a message that urged workers and customers to embrace reinvention, which he promises will “radically” reimagine the customer experiences, adjust the company mission as whole, and heal divided stores. The timing suggests that the letter strives to tamp down worker unrest, although Schultz remains vague on those specifics.
  • The federal court case involving a 10(j) injunction action filed against Starbucks will percolate for several months while all eyes remain on the outcome. If the judge rules fully for the NLRB and against Starbucks (on allegations of 200 unfair labor practices), the coffee giant could be forced to recognize and bargain with the union. An appeal by Starbucks could take years, but as LRI’s Phil Wilson previously explained, many troubling aspects of the case are worth scrutinizing for insight into how the NLRB is manipulating the case to fit their agenda. Already, the judge approved inclusion of an employee’s secret recording of a meeting.
  • As the Starbucks national organizing trend – at least 150 (of 9,000 total) cafes have unionized thus far – not every campaign lands as a home run. Workers at an El Dorado Hills, California location voted against unionization, and a re-voted election in Cheektowaga, New York ended in a tie with Starbucks Workers United casting doubt on one vote (that outcome is still up in the air).
  • The unionizing trend coincides with Starbucks announcing planned closures for 16 locations (in Los Angeles, Seattle, D.C., and Philadelphia). The company cites safety concerns as a motivating factor for shuttering stores, although Seattle workers filed an NLRB complaint to claim that these closures are retaliation against unions. In response, Howard Schultz warned the public to expect “many more” cafe closures. As if that wasn’t enough conflict, one cafe’s baristas went on strike over an alleged threat to remove healthcare benefits in unionized locations.

Here are some odds and ends to tie up this organizing roundup:

  • A dinner-theater chain’s mock-fighting knights and stablehands hopped on the organizing horse. Medieval Times workers in New Jersey became the company’s first staff to vote for a union, the American Guild of Variety Artists, after claiming “dire” working conditions, full of potentially dangerous performances that require specialized training. Workers at a second location in California followed suit.
  • Chipotle is wading into Starbucks-esque waters by permanently closing a Maine location where workers were attempting to organize. The company declared that the shuttering happened due to staffing difficulties, but workers filed an NLRB complaint for what they claim is retaliation.
  • The Amazon Labor Union launched new organizing campaigns at two warehouses in Albany, New York and Campbellsville, Kentucky. Workers at a third warehouse (in Garner, North Carolina) could soon join the union effort, although flagging momentum in New York City has led the union to abandon efforts to organize further in the immediate area and focus efforts on maintaining the union’s first success at JFK8.
  • Museum workers increasingly seek outside representation with a few new twists. A Meow Wolf (immersive art installation company) location in Denver could be the second location to form a union after a Santa Fe location joined the CWA. And in Hollywood, workers at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures voted to join Cultural Workers United.
  • Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. now follows up on a development from two years ago when the House approved staffers’ right to organize. Workers in eight House offices (those who mainly support Democratic lawmakers) filed for a vote to join the Congressional Workers Union. No doubt, there will be more to come.


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