Baltimore Starbucks is first in Maryland to unionize

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

Fourteen Baltimore baristas made history on Monday, when they gathered in a downtown Baltimore hotel and voted to join a union. The vote made their Starbucks — at 1209 North Charles Street — the first in Maryland to unionize.

The vote, to join Workers United, was 14-0.

A former U.S. labor secretary who was on hand for the vote — gubernatorial hopeful Tom Perez (D) — predicted that the small but growing push to unionize Starbucks employees will soon include hundreds of stores.

“This is not a one-off moment,” said Perez. “The number of union organizing campaigns we saw, the number of strikes we saw last year, the collective action that workers are taking across this country… I applaud that.”

In a statement, the Seattle-based retailer said it respected the vote, but it said company operations would flow more smoothly without collective bargaining.

Employees of the Charles Street store said a deterioration in the chain’s treatment of its employees — whom it calls “partners” — combined with the stresses of the pandemic led to the unionization vote.

“I’ve heard it from many longtime partners,” said one worker, Jennifer Clawson. “The conditions that Starbucks workers work in currently is very, very different from how it used to be five, ten years ago. It’s just incredibly stressful.”

With a successful vote to form a bargaining unit behind them, workers will next elect leaders and begin formal negotiations with management over wages and working conditions.

Gubernatorial hopeful Tom Perez (right) talks with Starbucks employee Jennifer Clawson (left) and union organizer Stephanie Hernandez (second from left) after Monday’s vote. Perez campaign advisor Tucker Cavanagh is second from right. Photo by Bruce DePuyt.

Discussions about joining a union gathered steam earlier this year, Clawson said. “It’s a really big deal,” she said of the vote. “Everyone at our store is so ecstatic.”

In December, a Buffalo, New York, Starbucks made national headlines when it became the first location to fend off the iconic coffee retailer’s efforts to keep its stores union-free. Since then, more than two dozen have followed suit. A company spokesperson declined to give an exact number, referring a reporter instead to the National Labor Relations Board’s website.

Stephanie Hernandez, a Workers United organizer, pegged the current number at between 28 and 30, with more unionization efforts popping up daily across the country.

“They have really have been wanting to do this for a while,” she said of the 1209 North Charles Street workers. “They’ve worked really, really hard.”

The vote attracted several Democratic political candidates, including former congresswoman Donna F. Edwards, who has launched a bid to reclaim the 4th District seat she held for eight years.

A community organizer before entering politics, Edwards called the vote “inspiring.”

“It’s really sweeping the country,” she said. “There is a total resurgence for labor.”

Edwards said much of the labor movement’s new energy can be traced to the early days of the pandemic, when workers with the most physically demanding but low-paying jobs were deemed essential, while more high-paid workers were able to work from home.

Most of the Starbucks employees are younger people who didn’t grow up in union households. “It is organic that they are seizing this moment to fight for themselves,” Edwards said.

In a statement, a Starbucks spokesperson said: “We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country. From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed.”

“We respect our partner’s right to organize and are committed to following the NLRB process,” the spokesperson said.

Perez, who served as state labor secretary for Gov. Martin O’Malley and then ran the U.S. Department of Labor for President Obama, said the wave of unionization efforts around the country is helping turn back an anti-labor tide that began in the early days of the Reagan era.

“Rather than fight these efforts and discipline people who’ve been involved in union organizing, Starbucks ought to sit down with these workers and hear them out,” Perez said. “If they continue to fight these efforts, their customers are going to start voting with their feet. There are other places you can go get coffee.”

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