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TONY'S TAKE

Messenger: Union votes start rolling as St. Louis Starbucks workers join national movement

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Workers at Starbucks to file paperwork calling for unionization

Armando Cjapi, right, enjoys a cup of coffee with his nephew Fabian Gusha at the Starbucks located along 3700 S. Kingshighway works the drive-thru window on Monday, April, 4, 2022, in the Tower Grove South neighborhood. Workers at the store announced they would file paperwork with the federal government calling for union elections. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

Jon Gamache grew up in a union family.

His dad was a Teamster, and his father before him. Sadly, for most of Gamache’s life, he has seen a general decline in union membership, as rising income inequality drove a wedge between the haves and the have nots, and the great middle class dwindled.

Indeed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1983, a decade before Gamache was born, there were 17.7 million union members in the U.S., more than 20% of the workforce. Last year, the number of union workers had dropped to 14 million, about 10% of the workforce.

“I’ve seen the labor decline over the years,” he told me. On the day we talked, he was voting in his first union election. Gamache, who is 28 and lives in Creve Coeur, works at Starbucks. His store, at Lindbergh Boulevard and Clayton Road, is one of seven in the St. Louis region where employees are in the process of trying to form a union. The effort follows a national trend that started with a singular store in Buffalo, New York, and has spread across the country.

Gamache and his St. Louis colleagues might be at the forefront of a post-pandemic union revival, driven by young workers who want higher pay, better working conditions and more control over their destiny.

“This many stores wouldn’t be doing it if so many people didn’t think it wasn’t the right thing to do,” Gamache says. Nationally, more than 75 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize in the past year, with an additional 200 starting the process. And it’s not just the coffee chain that is pursuing more collective power for workers. Unionization efforts are happening at Amazon, at McDonald’s, even at libraries. Just this week the workers at Daniel Boone Regional Library in mid-Missouri voted to join a union.

“For the past 50 years, workers all across America have been losing ground,” says Jeremy Al-Haj, executive director of the Missouri Workers Center, an organization supporting unionization efforts of low-wage workers in Missouri. On Wednesday, the center is sponsoring a march in St. Louis protesting working conditions at an Amazon fulfillment center in Hazelwood.

“Racial division and corporate power limited workers’ ability to win better pay, benefits, safe working conditions, and unions. Amazon, Starbucks and McDonalds workers are changing that. The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that these companies are not just going to wake up one day and magically prioritize workers’ safety, health or ability to live a decent life,” Al-Haj said.

When he moved back to St. Louis, Max Yusen didn’t expect to join the burgeoning union movement. The 23-year-old from Webster Groves graduated last spring from the University of Minnesota. He moved to Colorado after graduation, but an apartment fire sent him back home for a while. A few months ago, he got a job at the Starbucks in Richmond Heights on Dale Avenue. Now, that store is seeking to certify a union as well.

“People at my job just started talking about it, and it built from there,” Yusen said. “It’s a really demanding job. Starting wage is $12 an hour. That’s just not enough to live on.”

In the workers’ letter to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Yusen and nearly two dozen of his colleagues ask Schultz to stop working so hard to oppose union-organizing efforts in his stores.

“The only way workers’ voices get heard in a multibillion-dollar global corporation is by banding together and stating clearly what is necessary for us to continue doing our work with pride, dignity and respect,” they wrote. “And if you truly wanted to hear those workers’ voices, you would stop campaigning so hard to silence your greatest potential allies.”

Among Schultz’s strategies amid the union organizing effort has been to announce new benefits for Starbucks employees, but only for those stores that don’t join a union.

Gamache says the effort is backfiring. “There’s a lot of anger,” he says. Because of cuts to the number of staff members working during peak hours, “We can’t keep a grasp on our customer load anymore.”

Three St. Louis-area Starbucks stores have ballots out for the union election this week. More votes, including at Yusen’s store, will likely follow.

“The sentiment I get is that a lot of people who have worked during the pandemic, it opened their eyes up and they felt like the companies weren’t really caring about their employees,” Yusen says. “I think people across the country are fed up with the status quo. Wages have not gone up and the prices of everything has skyrocketed.”

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