NOTTINGHAM, Md. — Agnes Torregoza came to this country when she was a toddler, brought from the Philippines by her parents. Her mother found a teaching job in the Baltimore County Public School District, and the family set about cobbling together a new life.
Both parents eventually got union jobs in the public schools and moved with their children into a prefabricated home in the unincorporated reaches of the Baltimore suburbs. Her parents, Ms. Torregoza explained, had very definite ideas about the aesthetics of the American dream — everything should be fresh.
“My parents are really into, ‘Oh, we’re in America,’” Ms. Torregoza, 20, said. “‘I want to have a brand-new house. I want to have a new car.’”
When it came time to forge her own path, Ms. Torregoza, a slight woman with a black fringe of bangs and exactingly applied makeup, puzzled over her options. She’d graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a competitive magnet high school, and took some community college classes. She dreamed of attending a liberal arts college, but found the cost of tuition both unattainable and philosophically repellent.
“All these people who talked about race and class had spent so much money to go to school,” she said. “How can you talk about making things more equitable, but you’re spending $30,000 a year on tuition?”
So Ms. Torregoza applied for a Starbucks barista job in a strip mall near home. She’d heard about the coffee conglomerate’s generous benefits — tuition money, company stock, health insurance for part-time workers. But once she got to work, disillusionment set in.
The first thing she noticed: There never seemed to be enough people on the clock. Everybody rushed around while automated systems logged the speed of drive-through transactions — ideally, 30 to 40 seconds — and whether surveyed customers rated the baristas likable. Not that she had time to ruminate on her scores — Ms. Torregoza says she and her colleagues could hardly attend to basic hygiene. They often found themselves too frenzied to wipe down tables, clean the bathrooms or follow orders to wash their hands every half-hour, she said.
Oddly, despite this state of affairs, Ms. Torregoza couldn’t get enough shifts. She dreamed of saving money, moving out on her own, maybe transferring to a Starbucks downtown — but for that, she’d need to work. She got, at most, 25 or 27 hours a week, which was considered generous for Starbucks, where baristas say they rarely get full-time hours and even struggle for the 20 they need to qualify for benefits.
Ms. Torregoza’s discontent was growing, and she wasn’t alone. She’d donned her green Starbucks apron just as a labor insurrection was exploding across the company. The hectic, high-risk pandemic shifts had racked up record profits for Starbucks, but left many of the baristas exhausted and embittered. Workers at one cafe after the next were voting to unionize — more than 330 of its thousands of locations so far. Their demands include better pay ($20 an hour minimum for baristas, with annual raises), fair and consistent scheduling and easier access to the benefits that Starbucks executives were always touting.
The Nottingham Starbucks voted to join Starbucks Workers United in June 2022 — and Ms. Torregoza and her colleagues stepped into a world of trouble.
The corporate dirty war that ensued — in Nottingham and at newly unionized Starbucks cafes across the country — draws a sobering picture of employee rights casually crushed and labor laws too weak to help. Starbucks continues to fight and appeal the many labor complaints pending against it and maintains that the company has done nothing wrong.
But these professions of innocence are countered by piles of testimony from workers and National Labor Relations Board findings suggesting that Starbucks has indeed illegally repressed employees’ rights. The company has so far racked up a staggering number of complaints from the agency. In 100 cases, many of which consolidate a number of incidents, regional N.L.R.B. offices have decided there is sufficient evidence to pursue litigation against Starbucks. That includes a nationwide complaint, consolidating 32 charges across 28 states, alleging that Starbucks failed or refused to bargain with union representatives from 163 cafes.
Starbucks lacks the glamour of Hollywood and the indispensability of UPS, but as strikes and union drives erupt across the economy, the coffee workers’ struggle illuminates the stark and sometimes insurmountable challenges confronted by ordinary American workers who try to exercise their right to organize.
That Starbucks is carrying on this campaign in plain sight may be the most damning aspect: Union busting is illegal, but consequences are inconsequential. The Starbucks case demonstrates that a large corporation can effectively bust a union with time, by dithering over details and exhausting legal appeals. According to national labor laws, an employer “must bargain in good faith.” But that is a squishy and essentially unenforceable rule. Starbucks may yet succeed in smothering one of the most energized labor movements of our time.
It’s important to understand what Starbucks has done — and what it hasn’t done. The company has been accused of deploying familiar anti-labor tactics, such as the shuttering of some union stronghold cafes. (Starbucks denies closing stores in response to union drives and blames other factors, such as crime.) Union activists reported being spied upon, harassed or fired on flimsy pretexts, complaints that Starbucks disputes.
But Starbucks has also done a lot of nothing — time-buying, morale-eroding, innocent-seeming nothing. The company dedicated to caffeinating the world turns out to be very good at moving slowly, and the inaction is devastating for the workers, many of whom are economically vulnerable. Starbucks, on the other hand, faces little risk. Even if the company eventually ends up losing cases on the final appeal — a stage that could take years — the N.L.R.B. is barred from imposing monetary penalties. The board can only order employers to “make whole” anyone who lost money and warn them to do better.
“We’d email them, and they weren’t responding,” said Marina Multhaup, a Seattle-based lawyer who represents all the Starbucks unions in the Pacific Northwest. “So we’d file a charge, which is really all we can do.”
“Months and months later,” Ms. Multhaup said, the National Labor Relations Board “agreed that Starbucks was not bargaining. And we go to a whole hearing about it. But meanwhile, it’s been months and months.”
Across the country, the coffee company has drastically slowed negotiations by insisting (illegally, according to the N.L.R.B.’s general counsel) on in-person bargaining. The demand for face-to-face negotiations has severely hindered coffee shop workers who unionized in part because their schedules were erratic. When union representatives join by Zoom, Starbucks representatives abruptly stand and walk out.
“It really puts on display the whole power differential,” Ms. Multhaup said.
Meanwhile, not a single Starbucks union member has gotten a contract, and the union says the company hasn’t suggested any counterproposals in response to their demands.
These passive tactics of delay and avoidance are quiet and undramatic — especially compared with the bloody strikes and picket brawls of America’s past — but remarkably effective at crushing nascent unions, labor experts warn. We hear a lot about hard-fought unionization votes at Amazon and Trader Joe’s and REI, but once the election excitement fades, half the certified unions never secure a contract, said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
“The main line of defense is, ‘We’re just not going to sign a contract,’ and that’s just as effective,” Mr. Lichtenstein said. “And if you don’t have it within a year, well, the turnover is so great, and some of the people are no longer there.”
“The labor law has become broken,” he said.
As for the N.L.R.B., the agency has made no secret that it’s struggling to keep pace. Despite surging interest in unions — including a 53 percent jump in union petitions from 2021 to 2022 — the agency operates on a tight budget and a skeleton crew. The number of field staff workers available to carry out labor investigations today is half of what it was 20 years ago.
In the realm of unionized Starbucks cafes, some of which have clashed spectacularly with management, Nottingham isn’t known as a battleground. But Ms. Torregoza and her colleagues have nevertheless endured waves of fallout this past year.
Ms. Torregoza’s weekly hours gradually dwindled to 10 after the election, she said, forcing her to ration gas and delay veterinary visits for her cat, Charlie. Starbucks managers across the country are accused of slashing unionized workers’ hours to starvation levels. When Ms. Torregoza tried to supplement her income by picking up shifts in nearby Starbucks locations, as she had often done before, she found herself stonewalled. One manager, she said, finally remarked that Ms. Torregoza’s union work made her an unwelcome presence. (Ms. Torregoza has filed unfair labor practice complaints over this alleged discrimination.)
“They’re trying to get us to a point where we all just quit,” said Thanya Cruz Borrazas, who worked with Ms. Torregoza in the Nottingham cafe and in the union.
Meanwhile, the cafes that didn’t unionize were reaping fiercely desired improvements — the dress code was finally loosened and tipping by credit card, rather than just cash, was enabled.
Howard Schultz, the steely-eyed, self-made Starbucks founder, has told his story all over the country: the impoverished childhood in shoddy housing; the disabled and mistreated father; final vindication through the achievement of the American dream, a phrase he likes to use.
It’s a good story, and we bought it — we bought his coffee at a premium price, and we bought him, too. Hillary Clinton, by many accounts, planned to nominate Mr. Schultz for labor secretary if she’d won the presidential election in 2016. Mr. Schultz himself has toyed with the idea of running for president.
Mr. Schultz frequently lectures people about having built a “different kind of company” that respects the rights of employees, whom he calls partners. An empty chair gapes at every board meeting in a symbolic nod to the partners, who may or may not feel gratified at being represented by a piece of furniture.
When the recent wave of labor organizing first started to foment among Starbucks workers in Buffalo, Mr. Schultz was one of the corporate luminaries who jetted into town to discourage the union. It didn’t work, though — in 2021, a Buffalo Starbucks became the first company-owned cafe to unionize, and other stores quickly followed. Mr. Schultz greeted the union with an indignation that has yet to fade. He has flouted an N.L.R.B. order to apologize to his workers and to film and distribute a video explaining his employees’ rights.
“Starbucks Coffee Company did not break the law,” Mr. Schultz replied flatly in March when lawmakers in Congress questioned him about the video.
The baristas from Nottingham were there that day. The union had paid for their train tickets to Washington so that they could watch Mr. Schultz testify at the Capitol. He hadn’t wanted to face lawmakers’ questions; he’d agreed to come only after he was threatened with a subpoena. But the baristas were ebullient. It was, in a sense, a business trip — a first for Ms. Torregoza, who wore her union T-shirt and took careful notes.
“It was very surreal,” she said. “My mom texted me, like, ‘Oh, I heard on NPR that Schultz is going to testify today,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there.’”
The storied entrepreneur came across as icy and defensive, insisting Starbucks had done nothing wrong and that his anti-union stance was simply a “preference” that he had every right to express.
“Yes, I have billions of dollars,” he snapped when lawmakers referred to him as a billionaire. “I earned it. No one gave it to me. Anyone who keeps labeling this billionaire thing,” he added, “it’s your moniker constantly and it’s unfair.”
This intransigence seemed improbable from a public figure whose own life story begins with his father, a truck driver, suffering a severe leg injury on the job, throwing his family into desperate straits. Mr. Schultz, a child at the time, has called this a “defining moment” in his life.
Upbraiding the Starbucks founder for “squeezing the people who made you rich,” Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, invoked Mr. Schultz’s father.
“Your father had no rights and your family paid the price. That is how your workers now feel,” Mr. Markey thundered. “That is something I think, Mr. Schultz, that you just fundamentally don’t understand. These workers are just like your father, and they have no rights.”
Mr. Schultz appeared offended at hearing the young baristas compared with his father.
“You bring up my father,” he sputtered. “You don’t understand, sir, my father was a World War II veteran. He fought for this country in the South Pacific. You don’t understand.”
By the time labor experts and unionized workers testified to Starbucks’ abuses, Mr. Schultz and his team — a small army of nattily dressed advisers and lawyers — had left the building.
The baristas from Nottingham recalled watching him go, wondering if he’d look their way.
A billionaire who doesn’t want to be called a billionaire, who blusters when his company’s service workers get likened to the blue-collar worker who raised him — this is the chasm between our putative national values and our daily reality. We want to believe in a middle-class America where hard work weaves its own safety net. But millions of workers don’t earn enough money to cover basic expenses.
Unions helped create the American middle class and delivered livable pay, a two-day weekend, sick leave and overtime. But their power has largely faded. While some industries like Hollywood remain heavily unionized and a few private companies like UPS are still union strongholds, organizers have struggled to penetrate the service sector, which contains a majority of American jobs. Unions now enjoy the highest U.S. approval rating in decades, thanks partly to the deeply demoralizing experience many service workers endured during the pandemic and partly, no doubt, to the growing realization that neither corporate benevolence nor legislative nobility can be expected to save us.
The federal minimum wage, which has not increased since 2009, now sits at a plainly unlivable $7.25 an hour.
Ms. Torregoza was still in elementary school in 2012, when unionized service workers began the “Fight for $15” to lobby for a minimum wage hike. That struggle has dragged on so long that the original (and still unmet) demand is outdated and insufficient. Most Americans, no matter their political beliefs, now believe that people should earn at least $20 an hour, according to recent polling.
In his testimony, Mr. Schultz repeatedly reminded lawmakers that the average Starbucks worker earns $17.50 — more than the minimum wage in all 50 states.
Then Senator Mike Braun, Republican of Indiana, told Mr. Schultz bluntly that the salary he was touting wasn’t enough to survive.
“Even $17, that’s not a living wage in this day and age,” Mr. Braun said. “Any large corporation shouldn’t necessarily be bragging about $15- or $20-an-hour wages.”
Ms. Cruz Borrazas worked in Nottingham through the pandemic. This, she recalls, required stifling her fear of getting sick while scrambling to make ever more drinks, ever more quickly, with fewer clocked-in colleagues to help. At one point, a burst pipe in the cafe forced her to slog through a few inches of water, trying not to think about the electrical wires or her sodden feet. In the middle of all that, she’d sometimes glance at the run report tallying the sales.
“I’m over here, like, having palpitations because I don’t have time to get a sip of water,” she said. “And it’ll be like, they just made $700.”
Managers at the Nottingham cafe did not respond to phone messages; a former Nottingham manager who has since left Starbucks also declined an interview.
It was during the pandemic that Starbucks workers began to unionize in earnest — when the job started to feel physically dangerous, when the shifts got more hectic and baristas had to tangle with mask-refusing customers in between filling takeout and delivery orders.
“We felt very disposable,” said Alexis Rizzo, a Buffalo shift supervisor who became a key union organizer, only to be fired, she says, for being a few minutes late. (Starbucks has said her absences were more egregious.) “People were angry.”
Mr. Schultz speaks of Italian espresso bars and cushy benefits, but workers describe a reality that is harsher.
“You’re constantly seeing the company boast about how they have the best benefits in the industry, and then I see my co-workers on Medicaid because they don’t have enough hours or it’s too expensive,” Ms. Rizzo said. “It’s just a lot of the company pretending to be something they’re not.”
The baristas from Nottingham asked to meet me in downtown Baltimore, at a nonunion Starbucks in a bustling neighborhood near the Johns Hopkins University campus. Unlike their cafe, which is set among flat, broad roads between Lowe’s Home Improvement and Taco Bell, this Starbucks was urban and airy, with no drive-through in sight. I wasn’t sure why we were there.
At 22, Ms. Cruz Borrazas has a quiet, somewhat dreamy bearing, long curls tumbling over her shoulders. Born in Uruguay, she too was brought as a toddler to the United States, where her parents work blue-collar jobs in cleaning, construction and demolition. Ms. Cruz Borrazas has a green card but is not a citizen and never had health insurance until she managed to buy it through her job at Starbucks. After the union vote, she said, her hours were eventually cut so badly she risked dropping below the threshold to keep the benefits. She’d recently been cashing out her sick time to supplement her paychecks.
“Yes, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” she told me that day. “But it’s a long tunnel, and there are monsters.”
In her four years at Starbucks, she says, she never saw a barista get full-time hours. None of her colleagues, she told me, can afford to live alone.
But then she, too, mentions the American dream.
“I feel like the union is my only way out,” she said. “It’s the ticket to the middle class.”
I was starting to understand why we’d met in the city, the walkable streets, the cafe full of students and downtown workers, the suggestion of self-sufficiency.
When Ms. Torregoza talked about the union, she kept veering into discussion of her life in the far suburbs, which she considered sterile and unsustainable. There aren’t enough sidewalks, she said, and developments keep going up, like the Crumbl Cookies that had recently materialized a few doors down from Starbucks in the strip mall.
“It’s a little unreal,” she said. “It stresses me out, honestly.”
This was the malaise of a youth spent in the shadows of enormous companies hungry for low-wage workers to staff identical counters. Imagine being brought thousands of miles in pursuit of a dream and then, as you come of age, squinting into this landscape where there is nothing but selling and shopping, and trying to understand what it was supposed to look like.
Life was moving faster for Ms. Cruz Borrazas through the spring. She was taking on more union responsibility, using unscheduled hours to advise Starbucks workers who were organizing in other places. Invited by the Workers’ Rights Institute at Georgetown Law School, she spoke on a panel with Senator Sherrod Brown and Jennifer Abruzzo, the N.L.R.B.’s general counsel. But she had to send a few emails before getting the badly needed fee she said she’d been promised, leaving her feeling humiliated.
By the time spring gave way to summer, her hours had gotten cut so badly that she was officially broke — her bank balance dropped into negative. At that point, Ms. Cruz Borrazas’ health broke down. Malnourished and exhausted, she drove to the library one day but felt unable to get out of the car. So she drove to a hospital, where she was admitted for several days.
I heard first from Ms. Torregoza and later from Ms. Cruz Borrazas herself that upon getting out of the hospital, she’d quit her job at Starbucks and withdrawn from the union.
Starbucks can’t be blamed for Ms. Cruz Borrazas’ health crisis. Plenty of Starbucks workers are organizing under tremendous pressure without winding up in the hospital.
But listening on the phone as she described her breakdown, I noticed that material want and bodily fatigue were tangled into her thoughts. She’d been forcing things, she told me, trying to stand up to corporations, and that had been a mistake. To work and hustle as hard as she and her parents had always done, she told me, was “literally killing us … it’s killing our brains.” She’d been in service her whole life, she said, and she felt unable to continue.
“All I ever wanted was to go back to my own country, see my family, not have to work so much, not have to see my parents struggling so much,” she said. She told me that God had finally stepped in and told her that she could “just chill.”
I remembered her describing how as a child, she feared illness not because it hurt, but because the cost of seeing a doctor could cripple her family. I thought about how badly she wanted to make herself safe and make her family stable by securing a spot in the elusive middle class. She’d glimpsed a way forward with the union. And then she’d lost it.
The Nottingham union is “cold” now, Ms. Torregoza recently told me. It’s not one of the Starbucks sites where employees have voted to decertify the union. But turnover in Nottingham has been heavy, she said — about half the staff has left and been replaced over the past year or so — and, as the labor experts warned, union enthusiasm has withered.
The Nottingham workers never got a chance to bargain (Starbucks claims this is the union’s fault for insisting on Zoom meetings). As the union fervor dies down, Ms. Torregoza says her hours are starting to inch back up again. I suggested that the old status quo might be asserting itself.
“That’s not going to happen as long as I’m around,” Ms. Torregoza said.
But I think it’s possible. Maybe this quiet fading, engineered by a company with time and money to burn, is how the union dies.
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