When I moved from Miami to New York in 2012, I was not expecting to experience the worst hurricane of the season in my newly adopted home city, but that’s exactly what happened when Hurricane Sandy struck the northeast of the United States.
At the time I was living in a basement in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I was pretty lucky, the storm left my building relatively unscathed and we did not suffer any flooding or damage. My job situation fared a lot worse, I was working as a barista at a Starbucks in Lower Manhattan and the damage to my store was pretty catastrophic.
As a Starbucks employee, I had no set schedule and was given my hours every week at random based on whatever was convenient to the store manager. I was paid $9 an hour and was lucky if I ever was scheduled for a full 40 hours a week. Needless to say, it was hard making ends meet in a city like New York and I had to work side gigs to supplement my income.
After the storm, my store was closed due to severe damage. At first, we were told that this closure was temporary and that we would be back to work as soon as repairs were made. A week later, we still had not heard anything and after some of us asked when we would be able to work again, we were told that the damage to the store was too severe and that it would be closing down for good.
We were promised hours at other Starbucks stores as they reopened, and I was scheduled for a few hours here and there at stores that were experiencing staffing shortages or workers calling out, forcing me to work erratic hours and alter my travel routes on an almost daily basis. After a month and a half of this, I was finally relocated to a new permanent store but by that time, I was already burnt out from the situation and tired of the low pay, and began looking for another job.
Aside from the backdrop of my disgruntled Starbucks worker story being the rarity of a superstorm like Sandy hitting New York, there’s not really anything too special about it. Service workers are routinely treated as disposable by corporations like Starbucks that underpay and exploit them while they make record profits from their labor.
It didn’t matter to the company that I genuinely did my best to be a good worker and show up every day with a good attitude. When I was in trouble due to a natural disaster, it didn’t matter how much I asked the company to help me and my coworkers at our store. Not only did they not give any sort of monetary or material help to get us through the crisis, they couldn’t even be bothered to figure out stable hours for us to work so we could earn some money to make ends meet.
This lack of care for the workers who make profits for corporations even as they use the inflation narrative to price gouge on consumers is exactly the reason why it’s so encouraging to see dozens of Starbucks stores across the country beginning to unionize. To date, over 100 Starbucks stores across 26 states have now announced they are filing for union elections.
Since unionization efforts began, documents have been unearthed revealing Starbucks’ extreme union-busting tactics which include flooding stores in Buffalo, NY, with top-level corporate executives trying to intimidate pro-union workers seeking to organize with Starbucks Workers United.
Leaders of the Starbucks union drive in Buffalo, New York, were warned that they may be fired as a result of policy shifts planned by Starbucks management after a successful unionization effort at one of the stores. Several workers have suffered retaliation, including Cassie Fleischer, who had been working with Starbucks for five years.
While Starbucks workers fight for better wages and labor conditions, the company has been making record profits. In 2021, stores saw customers spend more on pricier cold drinks, which made up 75% of U.S. sales, and food, which saw sales climb 35% in the fiscal fourth quarter. Starbucks’ net income more than quadrupled to $1.76 billion in the fourth quarter of 2021.
These earnings are made possible by Starbucks workers who keep the stores stocked and running, and who provide the customer service that keeps clientele coming back day after day. It is despicable that this greedy company is now retaliating against those who are organizing for better working conditions but what we are seeing now can’t be stopped, because when workers realize their collective power, nothing can stop them.
Thomas Kennedy is an elected Democratic National Committee member representing Florida. He tweets from @tomaskenn.
is a former reported opinion columnist and roving correspondent. He's an elected member of the Democratic National Committee from Florida and a fomer Director of Sunshine Agenda Inc. a government transparency nonprofit organization.