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Workers at a Birmingham Starbucks become 1st to unionize in Alabama

Starbucks Union Vote AL
Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom
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Starbucks worker Kadarius Perkins raises his fist in the air in celebration shortly after his store in downtown Birmingham, Alabama voted to unionize, May 26, 2022.

In a near-unanimous vote, workers at a Starbucks in downtown Birmingham voted to join the Workers United union Thursday, becoming the first Starbucks in Alabama to do so.

The final tally of the union vote was 27 for unionizing, with one voting against it.

“That was not the turnout I was expecting, to be honest,” Sydney O’Neal, a barista at the store, said. “That is much bigger — and that is probably one of the biggest ones I’ve seen — for Starbucks unions.”

Alex Buford said they were relieved after the vote. Like other baristas, they were confident in a victory, but still felt nervous ahead of the count.

“I’m just really excited right now,” they said.

Baristas and shift supervisors cheered as they walked out of the store at the corner of 20th St. and Third Ave. South after the vote and were met with applause and hugs from friends, supporters and family.

The next step for the unionized workers will be negotiating a first contract with the company. Similar negotiations with other unions have dragged on well past a year, with many never coming to an agreement.

In April, nine workers at the downtown Starbucks wrote a letter directed at Starbucks interim CEO Howard Schultz declaring their intention to unionize. The letter credits Starbucks for “progressive policies and benefits,” but also accuses the coffee giant of understaffing the store and discriminating against marginalized workers.

“I hope that this keeps going and that this wave continues,” worker Noah Whiting said after the vote. “We do what we can when the ball is in our court, and we have to wait for Starbucks to do what they need to do when the ball is in their court. “

As of Tuesday, 268 Starbucks stores submitted petitions to federal regulators to hold a union vote. Just over 100 stores have already held elections, with 10 voting against unionizing. The union boom started after a store in Buffalo became the first to unionize in the U.S.in December.

However, union elections and victories are less common in the Deep South. A Knoxville store became the first to unionize in the Southeast. In the region, 34 stores have filed for a union election since the Buffalo victory.

In New Orleans, an Uptown Starbucks will hold a union election on June 3 and 4, the first to do so in Louisiana. Billie Nyx, one of the head union organizers at the New Orleans store, was fired by Starbucks in mid-May. The company said Nyx, a former shift supervisor, was fired for closing the store early against the instructions of two store managers. Nyx said their decision was made because the store was understaffed during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival weekend.

Nyx believes Starbucks targeted them because of their involvement in the union campaign. The National Labor Relations Board has filed 56 complaints against Starbucks following investigations, including charges that the coffee chain fired workers — like Nyx — because of attempts to organize unions.

Starbucks argues that unions will prevent the company from working directly with workers to make improvements. At the start of May, Starbucks announced new benefits for employees, but only at stores that are not unionizing.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story used incorrect pronouns for barista Alex Buford.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration among Mississippi Public Broadcasting, WBHM in Alabama and WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR.

Stephan Bisaha is the wealth and poverty reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a regional collaboration between NPR and member stations in Alabama (WBHM), Mississippi (MPB) and Louisiana (WWNO and WRKF). He reports on the systemic drivers of poverty in the region and economic development.

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