Orlando Starbucks workers begin voting in union election, joining a massive nationwide movement

‘Hell yeah, man, just do it’

Orlando Starbucks workers begin voting in union election, joining a massive nationwide movement
photo illustration by Daniel Rodriguez

Joining a massive union drive that’s spread to dozens of states nationwide, workers at an Orlando-area Starbucks began voting by mail ballot this week, after filing a petition for union representation earlier this year.

“We love our store. We love our manager. We love this company. Together, we can make Starbucks so much more than it currently is,” wrote workers of the 305 E. Mitchell Hammock Road Starbucks location in Oviedo, Florida, in a letter announcing their intent to unionize in March.

Roy Sistovaris is a barista and union leader at the Oviedo Starbucks that just kicked off voting. At least a few dozen workers at his store, including full-time and part-time baristas and shift supervisors, will vote on whether to unionize with Starbucks Workers United, an organizing campaign of the national union Workers United which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.

Sistovaris has worked for Starbucks, at several different Florida locations, for four years. A psychology and health sciences student at the University of Central Florida, the 21-year-old barista tells Orlando Weekly that workers at his location — many of whom are college students, like himself, or even in high school — are tight-knit. “We do share a pretty good relationship with each other. And we do all genuinely want, like, what’s best for each other.”

Organizing a union in Orlando
Last year, workers at the Oviedo Starbucks store closely watched the first successful unionization effort of Starbucks Workers United in Buffalo, New York. Curious, but uncertain of their chances, Sistovaris says it was the union’s victory in December that prompted him and other workers at his store to begin asking the question: How crazy would it be if we did that here?

He and his co-workers began discussing what they liked about working at Starbucks, improvements they’d like to see, and frustrations. For example, staffing shortages exacerbated by COVID-19; the coffee giant’s “customer is always right” philosophy that’s militantly enforced, even when workers are outright verbally abused by customers; and a feeling of being exploited by their multibillion-dollar employer, which saw record profits last year.

“I’ve had stuff thrown at me. I know people who have had, like, hot coffee thrown on them,” Sistovaris recalls. “You know, [customers] have said slurs to employees. Racial slurs, anti-gay slurs, that sort of thing. And we’re expected to like, make the moment right with that customer.”

This became worse during the pandemic, he says. Then, several months ago, there was one particularly frustrating day at work. “I just looked at one of my co-workers. And I was like, what if I just sent them [the union] an email? What if I just did it?” he recalls. “And she was like, ‘Hell yeah, man. Just do it.’ And I was like, man, whatever. So I did.”

Since then, he’s communicated with other pro-union Starbucks workers up in Buffalo, Boston, and other stores in the U.S. to talk strategy.

Until last week, he admits, he hadn’t even spoken with a union staffer employed by Workers United, instead communicating exclusively with other Starbucks workers leading union efforts at their own stores.

This hands-off approach from Workers United, allowing for a campaign largely led by and for workers organizing their own workplaces, is a deviation from the norm. And Sistovaris thinks it’s a smart move. “I think [Starbucks] is such a specific kind of work environment,” he says.

Actual Starbucks workers, he says, know the ins and outs of the company. Union staffers, meanwhile, can offer guidance, support, and — critically — help create a structure for organizing and aid in the process of collective bargaining when, and if, workers form a recognized union. 

This worker-led organizing style also creates a defense against the argument commonly made by anti-union executives, like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, that union drives are being led by “outside forces,” a tactic used to undermine the union and sow doubt into the minds of workers.

You can’t scare me, I’m sticking with the union
Since December, at least 70 Starbucks locations in over a dozen states have voted to unionize with Workers United. More than 250 locations out of the 9,000 Starbucks-owned stores nationwide have filed petitions for union representation, including 10 locations in Florida.

Earlier this month, a Starbucks in Tallahassee became the first Starbucks in Florida to unionize. In a single day, two stores in Jacksonville and one in Miami Springs also unionized.

To date, two Starbucks locations in South Florida — and nine in total, nationwide — have rejected the union. Still, that number is dwarfed by stores where workers have voted, in some cases unanimously, to unionize. 

Although the decision to reject a union can differ from one workplace and one union to the next, Starbucks Workers United is also up against an extremely well-funded, aggressive anti-union campaign that’s intended to dissuade workers from unionizing. 

Starbucks has retained lawyers from the notorious “union avoidance” firm Littler Mendelson, which has a decades-long history of thwarting unionization efforts. The company also developed an anti-union website describing the purported pitfalls of unionization. 

In what could be interpreted as a violation of labor law, Starbucks CEO Schultz recently said he plans to raise wages for workers — exclusively at non-union locations. Company executives have swarmed stores to gauge union interest and to talk down the union.

Further, workers are also subjected to anti-union meetings, formally known as “captive audience meetings.” Sistovaris says these meetings intended to pressure workers against forming a union have only emboldened, not dampened, the union’s efforts at his store — at least in part because it pulls workers off the floor, leaving those left behind to pick up the slack.

More than that, he said workers have also been pulled off the floor to watch a video of Schultz speaking about the benefits of the company and how “outside forces” are trying to tear it apart.

“It’s just like, we’re out on the floor, like super busy,” says Sistovaris, “and we’re super understaffed because there’s like three or four people in the back watching a Howard Schultz video, when they could be out working and like, helping the team.”

According to complaints filed by the National Labor Relations Board, Starbucks has also violated federal labor law, multiple times, by illegally retaliating against workers for their organizing activity.

The coffee giant has repeatedly denied retaliating against workers for organizing. At the same time, they’ve also reiterated and stand by their opposition to their workers’ union efforts. “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed,” Starbucks said in a statement to Recode, VoxMedia’s tech and business vertical.

What they’re asking for
Workers at the Oviedo Starbucks are organizing for reasons similar to those at other unionizing locations: to achieve greater say and respect on the job, improved training, higher wages and adequate workplace safety — an issue that reared its head during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They’ve also discussed more specific things they’d like to see, according to Sistovaris. For instance, a faster rollout of credit card tips (Starbucks announced earlier this month a goal of introducing that rollout by late 2022) and seniority pay for long-time workers.

Sistovaris, a Starbucks worker of four years, says he makes less now, earning roughly $12.63 an hour at the store in Oviedo, than he did at a different store a year and a half ago, where he made $14. And there’s one shift supervisor at his store, he says, who’s been there eight years. “In Orlando in particular, rent has gone up like just such an egregious amount. It’s not sustainable for people making like $12 an hour to afford rent, and college, and whatever else we all need in life.”

All Starbucks workers will be paid a guaranteed $15 an hour minimum by this fall, per an announcement made by the company last year. But $15 is hardly a livable wage in much of the U.S. anymore. According to MIT’s living wage calculator, a living wage for an adult with no kids in Orlando is $17.61 (on a full-time schedule). For an adult with one child, that shoots up to $33.68 per hour.

Sistovaris says $15 an hour in Orlando isn’t enough to make ends meet. “I think everybody deserves to get paid more, especially people who are providing, you know, goods and services to the public,” he said. “Especially during a pandemic.”

Unionizing service workers in the South
The Starbucks Workers United union drive has reached not just liberal pockets of the U.S., but also, even more impressively, largely non-unionized Southern red states, including North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina and of course Florida. 

Bruce Nissen, a retired professor of labor studies at Florida International University and labor organizer, told Orlando Weekly, as someone who’s been involved in organizing campaigns for decades, the fact that the campaign has taken off in the right-to-work, GOP-controlled Sunshine State is “extremely surprising.”

“Certainly looking at Florida, you would not expect it,” said Nissen, whose research has delved into various topics pertaining to the U.S. labor movement. “You just would not expect it. You wouldn’t even expect attempts, much less all the success that they’re having.”

In Florida, union membership in the private sector is abysmally low, with just about 3.4% of the private sector workforce unionized. Within the food service industry, that percentage is essentially zero. 

Starbucks barista Roy Sistovaris admits he was also pleasantly surprised to see the unexpectedly contagious union drive take off in Florida. And he hopes it spreads. “I’m very happy that, you know, a lot of people are hopping on the union train in Florida,” he says. “I’m hoping that spreads to where it really needs to be.”

Workers at the Oviedo store have received support from politicians like State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando), Congressional candidate Maxwell Frost, and the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter. 

Sistovaris, a member of Gen Z, feels confident about the union’s chances. “I would not have even bothered filing a petition, or even getting cards together if I didn’t think that there was overwhelming support for the union in the first place,” said Sistovaris.

Ballots for the union election were mailed out last week. Votes will be counted by the NLRB on June 9 over Zoom.

A different Starbucks in Winter Park also filed for union representation in early May, and two Tallahassee Starbucks locations will be counting votes in the next couple of weeks. 

Are you a Starbucks worker in Florida who’s organizing their workplace, or is thinking about it? Email reporter McKenna Schueler at [email protected] (or DM on Twitter for her Signal).

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