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Reporting on health care, criminal justice, the economy and other important issues in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

Lafayette Starbucks workers file to unionize, claiming management ignored complaints

Starbucks Sign
Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom
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A Starbucks sign hangs over the building of the downtown Birmingham store, May 11, 2022. A Starbucks in Lafayette, Louisiana recently filed a petition to hold a union election.

Starbucks workers in Lafayette could become the second group to unionize one of the coffee giant’s stores in Louisiana after asking in early July to hold an election. The effort to unionize the store at 4300 Ambassador Caffery Parkway comes after a surge of Starbucks voted to unionize this year, including one in New Orleans and another in Birmingham.

An open letter signed by six workers at the store in late June accused Starbucks of creating a hostile and unsafe environment, poor management and disregarding workers’ physical and mental health.

“We have been short-handed on the floor multiple times and ignored by management when we needed extra coverage,” the letter reads.

Pro-union workers at the Lafayette store said they saw unionizing as a last resort and would have instead preferred to work with management to resolve their issues. The coffee giant listened to their complaints but the organizers said that failed to lead to any change. They felt a union was their best chance.

“Right now, in this moment, I feel very hopeful,” said Roman Vidrine, a shift supervisor at the store.

The National Labor Relations Board received a petition from the workers for the vote and opened the case on Friday. The federal labor officials will now investigate whether the petition shows that 30% of the store’s 20 baristas and shift workers are interested in a union election. If approved, the officials will set a date for an official election.

Starbucks’ benefits package for its employees — which includes parental leave and fully covering college tuition in some cases — is typically well regarded. But Abri Tarazona, a barista at the Lafayette Starbucks, said they don’t change what it’s actually like during shifts. In an interview, Tarazona described conditions highlighted in the June letter, like complaints to management being ignored — which led to workers quitting.

“After a certain point it was just dominoes,” Tarazona said. “You would lose one good partner and the next would go.”

The Starbucks union surge started after a store in Buffalo voted to become the first for the company to unionize in December. In the Gulf South, a downtown Birmingham, Alabama store voted to unionize in May with a decisive 27-to-1 tally — becoming the first in the state to do so. In June, workers at a Starbucks in New Orleans on Maple Street were the first to approve a union in Louisiana, with 11 voting for unionization and one against it.

Organizers at both stores spoke in May and said the wave of Starbucks union victories that followed the Buffalo unionization inspired their campaigns. As of late June, more than 169 stores have voted to unionize while nearly 100 others wait for their own elections, according to the NLRB.

The agency also issued 11 complaints covering 66 charges of Starbucks breaking labor laws, including illegally firing workers for being pro-union. Billie Nyx, the lead organizer of the Starbucks union election in New Orleans, believes their firing from their job as a shift supervisor weeks before the vote was retaliation against their union activity. Leadership for both Starbucks and the Maple Street store denies Nyx’s claim.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has strongly opposed unions, publicly stating that unions bring outsiders into the company that only make it harder for the company to best serve its workers.

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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