Starbucks union at Winter Park’s South Park Ave store fails by narrow margin after workers vote Wednesday

‘The election loss was disappointing, but the struggle continues.’

Two months after filing for a union election, Starbucks workers at the heavily trafficked Rollins College-area Starbucks in Winter Park narrowly voted against unionizing with Starbucks Workers United on Wednesday.

The final tally at the 400 S. Park Ave. store was five votes for the union, eight votes against. According to the National Labor Relations Board, that’s about a 65% voter turnout. Thirteen out of 20 eligible voters voted by mail over the last month, and there were no void or challenged ballots.

While this wasn’t the expected outcome for the union, a staffer for Workers United — the parent union of Starbucks Workers United — says the union remains undeterred in their fight to ensure all workers who want a union will have one.

 “The Organizers of SBWU [Starbucks Workers United] are proud of every partner that stands strong in the face of Starbucks’ continued union busting tactics, and that is no different in this instance,” Camden Mitchell, a representative of the Southern Regional Joint Board of Workers United, told Orlando Weekly in a statement. “They will continue to fight back against a company which resorts consistently to threats and retaliation in order to halt any and all organizing by their workforce.”

Across the United States, over 300 of roughly 9,000 Starbucks stores have filed to unionize since December, when a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, became the first unionized, company-owned store in the United States. Nearly 200 have voted to join the union, while fewer than 40 have voted against.

Orlando’s already shown the country watching this rapidly expanding organizing campaign that it, too, can be union-strong. Just last month, a Starbucks in Oviedo, near the University of Central Florida campus, became the first Orlando-area Starbucks to unionize.

Since January, five Starbucks stores in Florida have unionized with Starbucks Workers United, a worker-led campaign of Workers United, an independent affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, which represents workers across various industries, including property services, healthcare, higher education faculty and more.

But yes, workers at three Starbucks in Florida — a state that has an abysmally low rate of union membership — have voted against joining the union. 

And workers at three other locations have withdrawn their petitions for union petitions, including a Starbucks in southwest Florida that had been scheduled to vote in person on Tuesday.

But that’s not to say there’s no interest in unionization. Rollins College professor of sociology Matt Nichter, who studies the labor movement and who helped organize “sip-in” events in support of union drives at Orlando-area Starbucks stores, says organizing a union — particularly when you’re facing highly funded opposition from your employer — is no small feat. 

“The election loss was disappointing, but the struggle continues,” Nichter told Orlando Weekly on Thursday. “Across the country, workers are learning that unions give them power and a collective voice in the workplace.”

It’s true. According to the National Labor Relations Board, the number of union election petitions filed in the first three-quarters of this fiscal year, from Oct. 1 to June 30,  were up 58% from the previous fiscal year.

And national polling shows union support is at its highest point in decades. Over the last year, the nascent Starbucks Workers United campaign has galvanized thousands of workers, many of whom — including at the Winter Park store — are young, LGBTQ+ and fired up. 

Contrary to the coffee giant’s complaints, it’s not a “third party” or outsider that’s running this rapidly expanding organizing campaign. It’s the baristas themselves who — in tandem with the independent organizing efforts of Trader Joes’ workers, Amazon workers, Dollar General workers and more — are upending business as usual in the U.S. labor movement.

At the 400. S Park Ave. Starbucks in Winter Park, factors such as low wages, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the high cost of living in the Orlando area were primary motivators for unionization.

Sean Ebersviller, a barista and union leader at the Winter Park Starbucks, told Orlando Weekly in May that the grief, uncertainty and constant anxiety of COVID-19 “has made people’s labor more valuable. And it has also made a lot of people realize how valuable their labor is.” 

Wages for Starbucks’ frontline workers — baristas, shift supervisors, assistant store managers — also haven’t kept up with the rising rate of inflation, or Orlando’s skyrocketing rent and housing costs. 

Ebersviller told Orlando Weekly when their store first filed to join the union that workers make an average $12.60 an hour. “It is most definitely not enough to live on literally anywhere in Orlando. Not in Winter Park, not in Oviedo … not in a shack in rural Seminole County,” Ebersviller said. “You can’t live on $12 an hour.”

In fact, they said one of the first things they were told by a co-worker — or “partner,” as Starbucks calls their employees — is how to sign up for food stamps. 

As Starbucks’ profits soar, workers say they want to feel that their labor is valued, respected and compensated appropriately — enough to earn a livable wage working for an employer that’s long touted socially progressive values. 

With Starbucks throwing hundreds of dollars an hour the way of its anti-union law firm, pro-union workers also want the coffee giant — and its billionaire interim CEO, Howard Schultz — to stop thwarting their unionization efforts and stand down. 

Just last month, a highly frequented, unionized Starbucks in a bustling part of Ithaca, New York, was shuttered by the coffee giant after workers went on strike over an overflowing grease trap in the store. 

And last week, Starbucks announced they planned to close 16 more stores, several of which have a union presence, citing safety concerns. 

When asked about the closures, a Starbucks spokesperson told the pro-labor publication In These Times, “We’re empowering local leaders, who have emphasized repeatedly that they care deeply about creating a safe and welcoming environment in the community. The company is renewing its commitment to safety, kindness and welcoming in our stores.” 

The union, however, is calling their bluff. “While just 3% of Starbucks nationwide are in the process of unionizing, more than 30% of the stores Starbucks is closing have active union campaigns,” the union wrote in a recent newsletter powered by and for Starbucks workers.

Starbucks has denied they’re targeting pro-union stores, according to Insider. But the union has filed an unfair labor practice with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging the closures are a blatant example of union-busting.

Both Starbucks and its billionaire CEO Schultz have a long history of crushing union activity. Over the last year, the NLRB has identified at least 200 illegal violations of federal labor law committed by the company. 

In a cruel shot at workers’ livelihood — yes, in this economy — Starbucks has also falsely claimed workers at unionized stores would be exempt from pay raises and other job benefits afforded to non-union workers. 

Management has held mandatory meetings in several stores, essentially with the sole purpose of dissuading workers from unionizing. 

“The thing that I was told by folks who have been in them is that they just felt it was a waste of their time,” Ebersviller, the Winter Park barista, told Orlando Weekly in May. “They [Starbucks] claim that these meetings are for helping the store get better without needing the union in the way, but all that seems to happen is talk of why the union would be bad and why everything is OK as it is now, and nothing needs to change.”

And it’s not all talk or intimidation. The company has also fired union leaders, some of whom the NLRB has sought to reinstate after declaring the firings clear violations of the National Labor Relations Act. 

Workers have said they’re seeing their hours cut. And, because you have to work a minimum of 20 hours per week in order to receive Starbucks’ employee benefits, this  jeopardizes workers’ ability to maintain benefits like tuition coverage and healthcare benefits — including the company’s much-touted trans healthcare benefits, which help cover gender-affirming care.

Ebersviller, the union leader from the Winter Park store, told Orlando Weekly in May that this hourly requirement to maintain benefits can make it seem like Starbucks “is holding people hostage.” 

“Basically … if you don’t behave, we can take away your benefits,” Ebersviller said.

Still, workers have fought back. Just over the last couple weeks, Starbucks workers have been out on strike in Denver, Buffalo, Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle and various other cities in protest of unfair labor practices, demonstrating a militancy that’s impressed even the most cynical of U.S. unionists. 

Workers, even those who’ve faced retaliation, aren’t backing down. Nadia Vitek, a barista and union leader who worked at the now-shuttered Starbucks in Ithaca, told Jacobin this week, “I don’t want people to be discouraged by what happened to us because while it is a risk, the more people who are in this, the stronger we will be. They did the worst thing they could do to us, but we’re still fighting.”

And pro-labor Orlandoans did come out and show up for the workers. Nichter, the Rollins College professor, said community allies with the Orlando Democratic Socialists of America, the Young Democratic Socialists of America at UCF and other groups organized “sip-in” events at the Winter Park and Oviedo stores prior to their elections to help bolster pro-union workers’ confidence and demonstrate public support.

“We had folks from the UNITE HERE unions at Disney, and some students and faculty from Rollins College. [State representative] Anna Eskamani and [Congressional candidate] Maxwell Frost stopped by as well,” Nichter told Orlando Weekly.

“Sip-in” events, Nichter said, “send a message to the company that the public is paying attention, and we won’t tolerate attempts to silence or intimidate the baristas in our neighborhood stores. We have their backs.”

While the union didn’t garner majority support at the 400 S. Park Ave. Starbucks this time around, the unions says that the fight to secure fair wages, safe workplace conditions and a voice on the job for Starbucks workers everywhere isn’t over. 

“This movement is and will continue to be about partners becoming partners,” reiterates Workers United staffer Camden Mitchell.

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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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