A group of about 83 Starbucks corporate employees signed a letter to company leadership earlier this week urging Starbucks to abandon its return-to-office policies and agree to neutrality and a set of fair election principles in unionizing stores.
These corporate workers feel the company’s mandate for some employees at Seattle headquarters and regional offices to spend three days a week in the office would hurt job satisfaction, productivity and diversity and inclusion, according to a version of the letter posted by the employees. This policy impacts 3,750 corporate employees, also known as support center partners, who live within 60 miles or 90 minutes of Starbucks offices, according to the company.
Monique Chase, a construction specialist at Starbucks who signed the open letter, told Restaurant Dive that she’d heard discussions among corporate employees about unionizing. Chase, who works out of the Chicago field office, said the return-to-office announcement in January resulted in hardship for many corporate employees.
“They gave us about two weeks to basically upend our lives and figure out a way to make it back to the office three days a week,” Chase said. The policy change left corporate employees scrambling to find childcare, adjust to inflexible hours and apply for accommodations when necessary — pushing many workers to express frustration, Chase said.
Starbucks said it moderated its original policy. But the change is a limited one: Starbucks initially required its Seattle office employees to come in every Tuesday and Wednesday, plus one day decided on by workers and team-level managers. Following complaints, the company changed its attendance requirement to Tuesdays plus one day decided by workers and managers, and either Wednesdays or Thursdays, depending on the discretion of department directors, according to a copy of the company’s email to employees that Starbucks sent to Restaurant Dive.
Chase said that in some regional offices, the return-to-office policy has resulted in less teamwork, as many workers now live outside of the commuting zone. Previously, the company’s remote work policies made it easy for teams to collaborate across distances, she said.
“I met a lot more people on a lot of different teams and was able to collaborate better when it was [a] fully digital environment,” Chase said. “I could just reach out to somebody and say, ‘Hey, I hear you do this, can you help me with this thing that I'm working on?’”
Starbucks said it would implement a policy to allow workers with serious health problems to apply for permission to continue working from home. Chase said none of the corporate employees she knows who have requested those adjustments, or requested ADA accommodations, have received them. Starbucks said it did not have information on how many employees have been granted permission to continue working from home.
While Chase has not personally faced those issues, she said she felt honor-bound to speak up for employees who were negatively impacted by the return-to-office policy.
“It's important that all of our voices are heard. And you know, even though it's not affecting me, it should upset me that it's affecting other people so horribly,” Chase said.
Murmurs of corporate-level unionization
This sense of employee solidarity is also what motivated the group of corporate workers, which set up a website under the name Starbucks Partners United, to include in its letter demands that Starbucks follow the union’s proposed electoral process. Starbucks Workers United, Chase said, has made it clear that is supports the corporate employees.
If Starbucks doesn’t budge, it may lose many younger employees and employees in tech-heavy sections who can work from home, which could lead to corporate brain drain, she said. Chase told Restaurant Dive that she’d heard discussion among the letter’s signatories about pushing for unionization if the company doesn’t change course on its return-to-office policy.
Many union drives begin with collective action against specific policies, said John Logan, chair of the labor and employment studies department at San Francisco State University’s Lam Family College of Business.
“Lots of organizing drives likely start with workers mobilizing around a particular issue (in this case both return-to-office policies and the unlawful anti-union campaign against store workers),” Logan wrote in an email to Restaurant Dive. “When management is unresponsive to the concerns expressed ... workers decide that the only way to gain a real voice is through unionization.”
Corporate workers may face disciplinary measures if they classify as managers, Logan said, since managers have fewer forms of collective action protected by the National Labor Relations Act. Starbucks declined to comment on how it would respond to employees classified as managers advocating for the rollback of return-to-office requirements and a change to the company’s relationship with SBWU.
In past years, some union drives have seen corporate employees voice support, Logan said.
“The most recent high-profile examples were at Amazon, when the company fired two Seattle-based tech workers in April 2020 for speaking out about unsafe working conditions in the warehouses,” Logan wrote. “In recent years, we have had at least fledgling organizing efforts at corporate HQ sat Google, Facebook and other big tech companies.”
Starbucks faces scrutiny for its treatment of organizing workers from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, which will vote on March 8 on whether to subpoena Schultz to appear before the committee and “provide testimony about his company’s lack of compliance with federal labor law and to authorize a committee investigation into major corporations’ labor law violations,” per a news release.
Recently, a coalition of investors, including major pension funds, urged shareholders to vote for a comprehensive review of the company’s response to Starbucks Workers United. The coffee chain’s board encouraged shareholders to vote against this proposal at Starbucks’ upcoming shareholder meeting on March 23.