What worked and what didn’t: A history of organizing at Starbucks (Part II)

This is the second in a two-part series on organizing at Starbucks by Nick Driedger. In this installment, he looks at the Industrial Workers of the World campaign in the US and Canada from 2004-2017. Read Part I, on the Canadian Auto Workers’ campaign in BC from 1996-2007 here.

Dan Gross started working at a Starbucks in Manhattan in May of 2003. His intention wasn’t to organize but as an IWW member he says he was always open to it.[1] Like almost everyone who was at Starbucks, he was faced with concerns about pay and scheduling and the best option became clear: they needed a union.[2] One year later, a majority of his store, about 14 employees, publicly declared their intention to get a union certification with the National Labour Relations Board and took out membership cards with the Industrial Workers of the World.

Starbucks quickly moved to set up roadblocks and argued to the National Labour Relations Board that the bargaining unit was not one store but three dozen stores in Manhattan.[3] This caused the union to beat a strategic retreat on the question of legal recognition, and that set the tone for the rest of the campaign.

The union’s response was to move towards a much more public campaign and build membership among any workers at Starbucks interested in joining. The Starbucks Workers Union (SWU) made a play for a minority presence across the entire company, using the media attention they garnered by trying to organize at Starbucks.

This generated a lot of controversy inside the IWW across North America, even early on. In the IWW’s General Organizing Bulletin (GOB), an internal forum for members to discuss union matters, a member in Portland expressed concern about this early move towards going public, saying: “it is almost inarguable that Starbucks would have almost immediately begun to find ways to pressure and/or discipline IWW friendly workers out of the shop.”[4] The New York branch’s own report states: “some members have disagreements about how the campaign was handled, but we’re expanding the drive.”[5] But while some in the IWW were concerned about the publicity-centered approach, the campaign itself doubled down on the strategy.

The media attention the campaign cultivated was impressive. SWU received coverage in newspapers across the US, including the New York Times. Without a treasury to hire professional staff or consultants (the largest amount in their budget to be found in IWW records was $1473.00 in June 2013, nine years after they went public[6]), the union built their campaign as lean as one could possibly imagine, using anything they could get for free, and that included media attention.

Soon the Starbucks Workers Union expanded beyond its New York base, first to Chicago, then to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis / St Paul) in Minnesota. In a May 2010 report to the SWU’s General Campaign Council email list, four years after the initial campaign in New York, an SWU organizer says they have a presence in 20 cities in North America.[7] This included public campaigns but also campaigns that had opted to stay under the radar. An exhaustive list of all of the places the SWU ever had a presence would be hard to compile because of the loose structure of the organization, but documentation reviewed for this study mentioned Grand Rapids, Milwaukee, Tampa, Omaha, Houston, Portland, Hartford, Baltimore, Seattle, Raleigh, Atlanta, Albuquerque, New Jersey, Cleveland, Minneapolis / Saint Paul, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Edmonton, Ottawa and Quebec City in Canada.

As the campaign expanded and matured, it developed different approaches. But from the very beginning, three things were central: a media-centered strategy, a pragmatic avoidance of legal questions of representation and bargaining rights, and direct action on the job. The approach was called “solidarity unionism.”

Approach to the Labor Relations Board

The move to solidarity unionism was not an ideological one, but one born of frustration at the labor board and a willingness to experiment with different approaches. The Starbucks Workers Union found it got better results when certification elections were avoided — in both the US and Canada.

When the campaign expanded to Canada, organizers attempted to run a certification election in Quebec City and again found the process very difficult to navigate without deep pockets to pay lawyers and staff. Members began to disengage as the legal war of attrition pushed them away from control over the campaign. The legal maneuvers also ran against a now fairly well-developed organizational culture in the Starbucks Workers Union and a proven track record of effective wins against the employer without using certification. In the debrief on the campaign in Quebec City, an IWW organizer concluded:

“…as far as  Starbucks (and other large chains) are concerned, our experience in Québec has taught us that it is crucial not to go down the certification road. Indeed, we recently adopted a resolution not to apply for certification for any union drive.”[8]

Where the union engaged in legal fights over recognition, it found itself bogged down and unable to put volunteer resources towards mobilizing on the job and following through on job actions to back up demands.

While the SWU abandoned the standard union approach of going for union certification and signing contracts, it did on many occasions avail itself of Unfair Labour Practices (ULPs). By May 17, 2010, the Starbucks Workers Union legal committee was reporting “a stellar record against the company, though Starbucks now settles most ULPs.”[9] The use of ULPs as a form of grievance procedure was itself not without controversy in the IWW, with some arguing that direct action would be more effective. On a strategic level, SWU needed to address the issue of firings before they happened (they were tied to the emphasis on publicity), but the firings the union did deal with in the legal process more or less proceeded how a lot of terminations do in union shops under contract: many were turned around, and many were settled for money and an agreement that the worker would move on. What is interesting is that the ULPs basically started to function as a de facto grievance procedure, at least on questions of termination, without a formal contract. In the same way a grievance process would in a business union shop, the ULPs provided both parties an opportunity to compromise on an issue before it became a stalemate. It also led to concentrating some decision-making in the hands of those with legal expertise, rather than decisions resting with the collective power the workers on the floor held together. But without a strong majority across enough of the business to defend against firings, organizers naturally reached for what they could. The point also remains that settling terminations at the labor board carries none of the baggage of a union contract requiring a promise to bring every difference to arbitration. At very least this made the question of using the legal system a tactical consideration and not a mandatory part of SWU’s existence.

Organizing approach

In a report to an email list used to coordinate the SWU campaign across the country as it grew, one organizer described the following “Five step organizing model” (this is the author’s own paraphrase and explanation):

  1. Initial contact: this would usually come in through the Starbucks Workers Union website, which was publicized largely through media attention.
  2. Connecting that contact with an SWU organizer: a member of the Starbucks Workers Union would then follow get in touch with the worker and feel out the situation.
  3. Connecting them with a reliable local IWW organizer: this would happen if there was a branch with experienced organizers nearby; they would get the workers in touch.
  4. Getting the contact to an organizer training: the IWW had an organizer training program, which saw explosive growth during the Starbucks Workers Union campaign among other IWW campaigns at the time. The training taught the basics of mapping a workplace and how to get concessions from management.
  5. Continuing to support the new member in their efforts to organize: ultimately a lot of mentorship was done by more experienced or former Starbucks workers, and these IWW members would work to develop campaigns in other cities. [10]

The first step of this system was a continual source of problems. The SWU got a lot of media attention and with every major news story came more workers looking to talk to the union. There was an incredible volume of contacts and often they were either not relevant (for example, not working at Starbucks), or not useful as organizing leads (the worker was not willing to organize), and following up with them was time-intensive.[11]

This approach led to an estimated 100 to 200 workers in the IWW at the height of the SWU campaign. However, the Starbucks Workers Union was not immune to the challenges the Canadian Auto Workers faced. Turnover was a constant problem. A report from August 3, 2010 at a high point of union activity reported that even in one of the core cities (Minneapolis / St Paul), the union was struggling: “Lost some momentum in the previous year, now working to regain it. Six or seven organizers with several sympathizers scattered throughout area.”[12] Albuquerque in the same report noted “two active organizers but any time someone seems interested they quit.” Ottawa reported “significant turnover at only store with iww [sic] presence, working towards building up SWU at that one store.” While the IWW managed to maintain a presence at Starbucks for two years longer than the Canadian Auto Workers, they did it by organizing a constantly shifting presence in multiple stores in multiple cities. It was a minority union from the start but also a constantly moving target.

Other approaches to organizing

In addition to the above approach, there was a lot of experimentation in different ways of reaching out to workers, as these examples show.

In one case, changes to Starbucks’ policies on tips for shift managers in the state of Massachusetts led to a statewide revolt over the issue. Shift supervisors at Starbucks are hardly proper management, with a significant proportion of workers taking on this “lead hand” role in the shop; by some reports as much as a quarter of the workers at some point may be shift supervisors. The change was brought in late December 2012, and by January 3, the Starbucks Workers Union had laid out an ambitious plan to cold call every store in Massachusetts and ask to speak to the shift supervisor.[13] All of the stores were divided up among several volunteer organizers, with each caller getting three to ten stores each, and they delivered a script, the pitch being to join the IWW and to oppose the cuts to those workers’ compensation through tips. This campaign of making cold contact led to 54 new signatures on a petition and some favorable leads which led the SWU to send an organizer up to Boston from New York on January 6. On January 9, 2013, two shifts in a store Boston went public with the SWU and another store held secret meetings with SWU organizers.[14]  By January 18, Starbucks had put out an announcement that in exchange for the change in the tipping policy, Shift Supervisors would now get a $350.00 bonus and the starting wage for the job went up from $11.00 to $13.89 an hour.[15]

While no one was in the room to negotiate and there was no legal recognition of the union by the employer, Starbucks was clearly making concessions to their workforce in response to SWU, to calm worker outrage. Part of the success of this strategy was that although it is hard to go after a supervisor who works in the store closely with workers, it is somewhat easier to go after district managers who have some real power but who workers never see.

This approach of mass targeted outreach was different than the five-point strategy outlined above where contact came through media coverage. It also delivered pretty strong results and did not seem to lead to the same number of firings.

The other example of an alternative to the five-point strategy, which happened late in the life of SWU, was at a store in New York City, where the worker-organizer opted not take the store public, given how many others had gotten fired after they declared union membership. She did still recruit actively to the union and engaged in job actions, but without the media publicity. For example: 

[Another SWU member] gave me a store manager handbook that [spelled out policy on various things] and instructed people to go directly to the HQ with problems. So we kept it below the radar.

We did a work-to-rule campaign using their rulebook. Everything was very timed, with every two hours to every 15 minutes you do a task. We set timers to do things like change the garbage and clean the washrooms. Every time a beeper went off, we would leave the line during a rush and our customers were furious. We would then give them a complaint line number and told them they needed to be staffed adequately. We immediately had district managers in our store and they increased the staffing in the store… The tactics worked really well and really showed the value of the union. People who transferred out were very pro-union even after leaving Starbucks.[16]

Another approach to organizing that was somewhat controversial in the IWW at the time was the extensive use of “salts” — that is, people who took jobs at Starbucks intending to organize. Some unions use salting programs but the IWW’s system was much more ad hoc, largely consisting of groups of friends who would apply, sometimes together. The problems with this approach are covered here and indeed some criticized the SWU campaign for being too reliant on self-selecting groups of leftist young people going and finding jobs at the company.

No wins without losses

There is no denying that the Starbucks Workers Union was effective (see the list at the end of this article). Wins ranged from pay raises (including a one-dollar pay raise across New York City), to getting the company to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday (subject to holiday pay) across the United States, to scheduling and safety improvements. SWU addressed some of the most common concerns workers had working at Starbucks, including discipline, tips and workflow. On business union terms, the concessions obtained were very respectable. The nature of the organization being very loose also meant many shop-level victories on the store level went unreported.

There was a price paid for these wins, though. Burnout was common with the organizers at Starbucks, which is understandable: they were working for low pay, with all the worries that come from being broke, then putting in long hours organizing. There were also a tremendous number of firings, which pushed some organizers out of the shops and took an emotional toll on people who remained. On the other hand one of the strengths of the union was the SWU’s ability to withstand so many terminations, starting with Dan Gross, their first organizer, in 2008. After that, IWW press and internal reports mention 18 firings, although some of this may have been a generous estimation as part of an attempt to tarnish the company. Frequently, however, entire stores were cleared out of SWU members by Starbucks head office.

The combination of burnout and firings meant that many organizers left Starbucks. When an Unfair Labour Practice would be filed, the company would offer money to settle the case on the condition the union member move on. While many SWU members turned down the offer, the money gave lots of people an understandable opportunity to leave. Often the offer was a not insignificant amount of money considering the wages they were going back to at Starbucks.

The words of the IWW member from Portland at the very beginning of this article are worth looking at again, however. They warned that the media-heavy approach would lead to firings and looking at the campaign this is hard to deny. The union generally left “going public” up to the workers on the job and implicitly encouraged it by presenting it as a key part of the “Stages of a Campaign” in the IWW Organizer Training program.[17] This caused some cities to announce public membership with the union with as few as three members citywide, and in one instance, only one member. Later, this practice was identified by leading organizers in the campaign as a key factor in the high numbers of firings, and some shops switched to simply staying underground and engaging on an issue-by-issue basis. This did not make the union less effective.[18]

The structure of the Starbucks Workers Union

There were roughly four different periods to the Starbucks Workers Union, each where a new leadership group stepped up as others stepped back, with a small handful of organizers straddling more than one period. These periods were roughly: 2004-2009, 2009-May 2012, (after a hiatus) November 2012-2014, (and after another hiatus) January 2015-2017. Each boundary coincides with a drop in activity on a central email list and either a new email list being established or an old email list being revived. The central decision-making bodies were these coordinating email lists where various organizers made reports, and conference calls that were made as needed.

None of the conference call minutes reviewed had formal minutes or recorded votes. Dan Gross reports the campaign mostly worked on trying to achieve consensus, only putting things to a vote when that failed.[19] 


The structure was overall ad hoc with varying degrees of informality. This ad hoc approach is not foreign to solidarity unionism; it’s often emphasized from the very start. In fact the example above of an organizational chart runs counter to the ethic of solidarity unionism put forward by Staughton Lynd himself, who says:

We are not speaking of some organizational chart that anyone will impose on the wonderful variety of workers’ self-organization. The point is just the reverse: that these two kinds of committees — the committee formed at the individual workplace, with its elected delegates or stewards, and the committee of all kinds of workers in a given locality — recur and recur whenever working people organize for themselves, without somebody telling them how to do it.[21]

While the tremendous amount of energy the SWU campaign had was clearly effective, there was also a lot of difficulty coordinating actions, and the informality in at least once instance led to a collapse in the organizing.

Towards the end of November 2014, a disagreement over strategy that had been building for months came to a head. Two groups of organizers had a disagreement over the way forward, with one group putting forward a position that they needed to build towards an action at the Starbucks Shareholders conference and another group pushing in the direction of building the campaign store-level actions with the media activity being more general and not tied to the shop level where organizers were being targeted.

The response by one of the organizers was to put the contentious decision to a vote on the email list, something that had happened only a couple other times in the entire history of the SWU[22]. Instead, the list went silent with very little activity until one last attempt to revive things in mid-2015.

Summary: the IWW and the CAW

The Starbucks Workers Union is probably the most ambitious, sustained contemporary example of solidarity unionism. The results the organization got for workers at Starbucks were undeniable, with an impressive track record of wins and lasting improvements to the terms of work and conditions for people who work at Starbucks. It also set the bar very high in terms of regional scope, encompassing much of the IWW across North America.

Like a lot of the political scenes it draws upon, the IWW found its limits in the informality and ad hoc nature of the organization. The campaign’s informal structure was also something that goes back to the foundational documents of solidarity unionism. Ultimately this informality made it very hard to settle disagreements, make organizers accountable, or even to have the membership democratically steer the organization.

The SWU coincided with the development of the Organizer Training Program of the IWW and its experiences identified key weaknesses in the curriculum that were later corrected. The practice of “Going Public” (that is, a public and splashy “coming out” of union activists in a workplace) as a concept was more or less transposed directly from union certification elections and proved to be disastrous for the IWW, especially in the SWU campaign. Firings followed and usually that branch of the campaign ended. Versions of the training program that came after the SWU years encouraged a much more strategic approach to the question of publicity.

The high numbers of firings also is not necessarily a result of the direct action approach, as the example from the one store in New York or the campaign around Shift Supervisors pay show. In both cases, organizing that has strong support from the shop floor and where contact with workers is made in a way where union activists are not so easily singled out or targeted can force concessions. Conversely the entire pastry bakery being shut down after a CAW certification election shows a union contract is no guarantee that jobs won’t be lost in retaliation for going union. The speed with which Starbucks shut down the plant after the CAW organized it is something anyone looking to anchor a campaign with a labor board certification in the plants may want to think about. For the CAW, much like for the IWW, a strong and public show of support from the staff at a company in an otherwise isolated corner of the entire enterprise was easily cut off and isolated.

One place where the CAW was successful (if only briefly), then, was building a presence in the pastry bakery. Moving into other parts of the supply chain was a longstanding ambition of the SWU campaign but their grounding in leftist political counterculture scenes made a cultural affinity with staff at the retail stores far stronger, compared to with the more blue-collar workers in the roasting plants and bakeries.

One common criticism of the IWW’s non contractual approach is that it’s inherently unstable but in this case, the IWW outlasted the Canadian Auto Workers by two years. Of course this does not mean the CAW’s approach was wrong in itself (they had stable units in other fast food like Kentucky Fried Chicken) but it also doesn’t mean that the non-contractual approach is as inherently unstable. The IWW’s emphasis on constant mentorship and endless chains of organizers replacing themselves, as well as grounding themselves in some dedicated organizers who stayed on the job, succeeded in setting down deep enough roots to keep the campaign going and build generations of experience.

A function of the campaign going for a contract (with the CAW) or not going for a contract (with the IWW) was how each union treated Starbucks’ practice of generalizing concessions. When management made concessions to the CAW and then delivered those same concessions to everyone who was not in a union shop, the CAW was very concerned: a core part of their strategy had been to argue that pay was higher in union shops. When Starbucks did the same thing across all of Manhattan, the IWW used it to recruit to the union by pointing out that it was effective at winning concessions. The fact that IWW membership was grounded in the union’s own bylaws, instead of labour board certification, is what made this possible.

Perhaps the most important thing for the IWW was the shared sense of empowerment developed by the campaign. Many alumni went on to take the approach to organizing they learned in the SWU and apply it to subsequent IWW campaigns and efforts in mainstream unions. The IWW as a whole was in a much better position to organize other campaigns; it became more confident and was able to point to some high-profile victories as concrete evidence of what solidarity and tenacity could achieve. While many campaigns in the IWW have achieved even better results on a local level, the IWW has yet to pull off a campaign with as much breadth and ambition as the SWU did across North America.

Overall these cases prove that organizing in fast food is not impossible but it does require a different approach. Current and future attempts can look at these previous attempts and assess where they succeeded and where they came up short.

[1] Author interview with Dan Gross, March 11, 2020.

[2] Author Interview with Dan Gross, March 11, 2020.

[3] “Starbucks Workers Turn to IWW,” Industrial Worker, July/August 2004, 2. The same article mentions CAW efforts at Starbucks in Canada.

[4] IWW General Organizing Bulletin #8 2004.

[5] Ibid.

[6] IWW General Organizing Bulletin June 2013.

[7] IWW Starbucks Workers Union General Campaign Council (GCC) list, May 17, 2010.

[8] Email to main IWW email list, August 30, 2010, by an outside organizer working with SWU in Quebec.

[9] IWW Starbucks Workers Union General Campaign Council list, May 17, 2010

[10] IWW Starbucks Workers Union General Campaign Council list, August 3, 2010.

[11] Both email lists reviewed, the SWU list and the GCC list, had countless, sometimes hundreds of contact emails per month.

[12] IWW Starbucks Workers Union General Campaign Council List, August 3, 2010.

[13] IWW Starbucks Workers Union list, January 3, 2013.

[14] IWW Organizing Department Board email list, 2013.

[15] IWW Starbucks Workers Union email list January 18, 2013.

[16] Personal Interview with Sarah Madden February 28, 2020.

[17] Personal Interview with Sarah Madden February 28, 2020.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Author Interview with Dan Gross, March 11th, 2020.

[20] SWU list January 20, 2013. This “proposed” organizational chart for SWU structure that reflected more or less how the union had already been operating for a number of years.

[21] Solidarity Unionism, Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below, Staughton Lynd, 81.

[22] SWU email list, November 26, 2014.

List of Starbucks Workers Union wins

  • Wage Increases were commonly reported in any city with a public SWU campaign. In New York City, wages went from $7.75 per hour to $8.75 per hour.[1] In Quebec, Canada, a “pretty good” pay increase was extended to all staff in nearby stores.[2]
  • On November 17, 2010, Martin Luther King day was recognized as a paid holiday, giving baristas the day off or holiday pay for working that day, fulfilling a demand made by SWU for several years prior.
  • Shift Supervisors in Massachusetts won a $350.00/year bonus and a raise from 11.00 to 13.89 per hour.[3]
    SWU ran lots of their early campaign on health and safety issues and the pace of work in stores. In response, Starbucks changed their training materials for new staff across the company.[4]
  • After SWU published an extensive research project on the scheduling practices at Starbucks, the New York Times and many other publications ran a piece on the health impacts of these scheduling practices. Shortly afterwards, Starbucks introduced new scheduling policies across the company as well as new dress code policies with regards to tattoos, both meeting long-standing union demands.[5]
  • In New York, SWU won more hours for baristas who wanted them, and changes in scheduling to end “clopening” shifts (shifts where you close the store one day and open it the next) [6]
  • A Twin Cities store reported improved staffing and better scheduling for those asking for more hours.[7]
  • Dallas Fort Worth reported scheduling changes and increased staffing in line with union demands.[8]
  • Omaha reported that Starbucks agreed to meet all store-specific demands around staffing and scheduling issues. It later reported that an abusive manager was disciplined and then fired. [9]
  • Store in Twin Cities in a mostly Somali neighbourhood hired more Somali-speaking staff in response to union demands.[10]
  • Staffing and Scheduling issues resolved in Hartford Connecticut store. [11]
  • SWU Organizer in NYC won a transfer to another store after a ULP and a public pressure campaign. [12]
  • “Phone zap” action led to scheduling changes at Astor Place Starbucks in Manhattan. [13]
  • Milwaukee Starbucks store reported full staffing and major changes to scheduling after job actions. [14]
  • Management removed the staff’s breakroom at a store in New York City. Workers confronted management as a group, and the break room was returned.[15]
  • Management refused to provide a fan for workers in a very hot store. Workers confronted management as a group and threatened a walkout; management provided the fan. The company later installed air conditioning in the store. [16]
  • On July 11, 2008, management reinstated a fired union organizer after escalating job actions. It settled an Unfair Labour Practice sometime later.[17]
  • A fired worker won their appeal for unemployment insurance with SWU help.[18]
  • A Dallas Fort Worth Store won a new first aid kit. [19]
  • A Milwaukee store signed a petition to remove dangerous equipment; Starbucks conceded to the demand.[20]
  • An unpopular district manager in Milwaukee was fired after union complaints of abusive behavior.[21]

[1] Lynd and Gross, 22.

[2] IWW Starbucks Workers Union General Campaign Council email list, December 25, 2009.

[3] Starbucks Workers Union email list, January 18, 2013.

[4] Staughton Lynd and Daniel Gross, Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks (PM Press, 2011), 22.

[5] Starbucks Workers Union email list, September 4, 2014

[6] Lynd and Gross,.22.

[7] IWW Starbucks Workers Union General Campaign Council list, September 29, 2009.

[8] Industrial Worker February/March 2010

[9] IWW Starbucks Workers Union General Campaign Council email list August 6th 2010

[10] IWW Starbucks Workers Union General Campaign Council email list February 13th 2011

[11] IWW Starbucks Workers Union General Campaign Council email list May 2nd 2011.

[12] IWW Starbucks Workers Union General Campaign Council email list July 12th 2011

[13] IWW Starbucks Workers Union General Campaign Council email list December 8th 2011

[14] IWW SWU email list October 23 2013

[15] Ibid

[16] Solidarity Unionism at Starbucks by Daniel Gross and Staughton Lynd, p. 32

[17] Industrial Worker, Official paper of the Industrial Workers of the World, July/August 2008 Issue.

[18] IWW SWU GCC email list October 7th 2009

[19] IWW SWU GCC email list October 7th 2009

[20] October 16th 2013 SWU email list.

[21] Dec 1st 2013 SWU email list.