Local Journalism Happens With YouSupport
News

Red Cup Rebellion: Striking Starbucks Workers Shut Down Two Los Angeles Stores

Little Tokyo and Cypress Park workers join global action to demand Starbucks stop union-busting and start negotiating a fair contract.

Worker on picket line outside Starbucks, holding signs that say "No contract no coffee"
Striking workers picket outside the Little Tokyo Starbucks (Photo: Sarah Michelson)

On November 17, unionized Starbucks workers shut down two stores in Los Angeles on what is typically the busiest day of the year, demanding the company come to the table and negotiate with its workers.

In the largest coordinated action in Starbucks’ history, workers around the globe demonstrated on Red Cup Day, the annual event where customers can buy the chain’s’ holiday-themed, reusable red cups. Workers said the company’s representatives consistently walk out of scheduled meetings with the union, refusing to negotiate contracts.

“I got to be there for Starbucks’ longest negotiating session in all of California,” said Veronica Gonzalez, who works at the Cypress Park location. “It was nine minutes long.”

Starbucks refused to even begin the last scheduled negotiating meeting because one employee wanted to join the meeting by Zoom, Gonzalez and other workers told Knock LA. They said at previous meetings, workers began to read their proposals and were only able to get through a sentence or two before Starbucks representatives walked out. On other occasions, Starbucks botched reserving the room to hold the meetings.

In an October press release, Starbucks alleged that Starbucks Workers United, which represents three LA Starbucks stores, was “inappropriately broadcasting sessions to individuals who were not present,” and they accused the union of illegally recording the session. Starbucks filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) complaint against the union for refusing to bargain in good faith.

Starbucks Workers United had previously filed hundreds of ULPs against Starbucks nationwide. The National Labor Relations Board validated dozens of these by issuing formal complaints, including over a dozen in Los Angeles for actions like illegal retaliation and “coercive statements like threats and false promises” meant to dissuade unionizing.

During last summer’s campaign to unionize the Cypress Park store, barista Brandy Fuentes says the store manager used personalized arguments in an attempt to convince each worker not to join the union.

Fuentes was told that she’d lose her school benefits if the store unionized. For a coworker who worked part-time and made around $550 a month, the manager claimed that union dues cost her entire paycheck. The manager admitted to a different barista that the number would be closer to $50.

“They assume we’re not talking to each other,” said Gonzalez. “They think so little of us.”

Andrew Salazar said he used to regularly visit two other locations within a block of the Little Tokyo store where he works, but those locations closed abruptly at the end of July in the midst of unionizing efforts.

Starbucks representatives claimed the closures were due to “a high volume of challenging incidents that make it unsafe to continue to operate,” but Salazar was skeptical. Stores one or two blocks away were labeled too unsafe to operate while his store remained open with no additional safety precautions.

On Starbucks Worker United’s list of non-economic proposals, the category of health and safety is listed as a top priority.

Claudio*, a Little Tokyo employee whose identity has been independently verified by Knock LA, said a customer threatened him with a knife, then used that knife to stab another customer. Claudio says his boss did not give him a break to process what he had witnessed. Several employees recounted a day when they were asked to work in two inches of water from a sewage leak while every other nearby business closed.

According to Salazar, Starbucks has never shown a sincere interest in the safety of its employees and expects workers to perform dangerous tasks above their pay grade, without adequate protections like gloves and needle disposal bins.

“In training they told us not to touch hazardous materials,” Salazar said, such as feces and vomit that are regularly left all over the bathrooms. “But then they ask us to do that two or three times a week to save money on power washing.” Salazar refused.

“A Target on Your Back”

After a wave of unionization at Starbucks stores nationwide last spring and summer, Starbucks introduced a package of increased wages and benefits, but only for workers not working at unionized stores. Starbucks claimed it was forced to exclude organized workers because it “lacks the right to unilaterally make these changes [in] stores where there is a union or union organizing.” The National Labor Relations Board disagreed and ruled that Starbucks’ actions constituted illegal coercion. Workers say the unequal treatment continues, but so does the movement for worker power.

“I want people to know they have the legal right to organize,” said Gonzalez. “People don’t know that, and they’re scared, and Starbucks takes advantage of that.”

If you support the union, “it’s like there’s a target on your back,” Fuentes said. Just after the store unionized, her supervisor refused to approve her school schedule. “I had never had that problem before,” she said.

Claudio said that when applying for a promotion, he was explicitly told he wouldn’t get the job because of his involvement with the union. Another employee said that pro-union workers had their hours cut — sometimes in half — and workers who opposed the union do not have to work as hard.

Many of these issues were ameliorated with the assistance of the union, which also covered 70% of striking workers’ wages. (A fundraiser covered some of the remainder.)  “The union has showed up for us more than Starbucks has,” said Claudio.

When Aliya*, whose identity Knock LA has also independently verified, received her welcome email to begin work at the Little Tokyo Starbucks, it contained a 15-page guide on the dress code (“We hope this Dress Code Lookbook gets you excited to open your closets and have fun”). The guide said shoes must be black, brown, or gray, so when her black sneakers wore out, Aliya bought gray shoes she thought were cute.

It was a considerable but seemingly necessary expense for Aliya, who works at least 30 hours a week for Starbucks but lives in temporary emergency campus housing. Aliya’s boss refused to allow her to wear the shoes, saying that because the store had unionized, the dress code she’d received with her welcome email “does not apply to our store.”

Aliya said she recently called in sick, but her boss insisted she come to work a double shift. Having previously worked as an independent freelancer, she said she has been stunned by the way she is spoken to at work. “I’m used to speaking to other people as equals,” said Aliya.

Rachel, who works at the Cypress Park Starbucks, expressed that Starbucks workers deserve more respect. She said every week her manager tries to motivate the employees by showing them how much money they’re making the store and pushing them to work until exhaustion. The store consistently ranks as the highest-performing in the district, but workers don’t see any extra money.

“We make the store $100,000 a week and we get bags of chips as rewards,” said Rachel.

Group photo of striking workers outside Starbucks at night
Picketing workers outside the Cypress Park Starbucks (Photo: Sarah Michelson)

All day and into the evening of Red Cup Day, renamed Red Cup Rebellion by the protesters, workers rallied outside the stores they had refused to open. Several customers walked right past the protesters, focused on getting coffee in a special red plastic cup. Some even rattled the closed doors.

As the nighttime chill set in, Veronica told Knock LA that Starbucks is refusing to face the facts that their workers are organized and powerful. “They’re trying to exert power during negotiations,” she said. “The whole point of being here is we don’t want you to boss us around. We don’t want to only do things that benefit the corporation but not us.”

When customers drove past the protest and waited in the darkened drive-through for someone to serve them, workers told them “We’re on strike!” As the customers drove away, they could hear workers chanting: “We pour the shots, we call the shots!”