Employees at W. 6th Starbucks in Cleveland Take First Step Toward Unionization

click to enlarge Employees at W. 6th Starbucks in Cleveland Take First Step Toward Unionization
Photo via Flickr Creative Commons
Employees at the W. 6th Starbucks location in downtown Cleveland have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union representation election. The Cleveland Starbucks would be the first Ohio store to unionize and follows similar efforts at locations across the country, including in Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Seattle and elsewhere.

In a letter to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson sent Monday morning, workers at the W. 6th store said that while they served at the forefront of the customer service industry during the pandemic, they haven't felt adequately cared for. With insufficient guidelines and safety measures, disillusionment and burnout are now commonplace.

Starbucks workers are euphemized as "partners" in the corporate lingo, but workers say that during the pandemic, they've felt more like "cogs in a machine."

"We see unionizing as the best way to achieve true partnership, beyond just the title of 'partner,'" the letter reads. "Through this union, we are committing to our goals of improving our own work lives, establishing equity and equality within our store and the company, and doing our part to move the company forward. By signing onto these principles, Starbucks can prove itself as a partner alongside us in this commitment."

Cara Rovella, 22, is a barista and barista trainer at the W. 6th location. She started working at the popular coffee chain in July of this year. She told Scene that she signed a union authorization card, along with the overwhelming majority of her colleagues, for a number of reasons.

"A lot of people say Covid is the big reason," she said, "because we feel let down by the safety measures put in place by our company during the pandemic. But I personally am a barista trainer, and the training plan simply doesn't provide enough time to really teach people how to become a barista."

Wages are another reason, Rovella said, both the base pay and the raises for longtime employees.

"The crux of all these issues is that we just want to have a voice," Rovella said. "Decisions at Starbucks are made in a top-down manner. We just have to do what they tell us. But we're the ones on the ground, working with the public. And we don't think it's realistic or fair that we don't have a say in how things get done."

Rovella said that the unionization process has moved extremely quickly, and that local workers were inspired by the unionization effort at the Buffalo location.

"That made us think, if Buffalo can do it, maybe we can too," she said. "Once these things started to happen, people began to see the possibilities for themselves."

Rovella said that she suspected Starbucks wouldn't voluntarily approve the union in Cleveland and that, if Buffalo were any guide, corporate would work to delay the vote and lobby against the unionization effort by a number of means. But when the National Labor Relations Board holds the vote, a simple majority of the location's 20 workers is all that will be required to form the union.

"At the end of the day, we all like working for Starbucks and are doing this because we're dedicated to the work and want to make the jobs better," Rovella said. "I hope this can set the stage for others in the region, and that people will start to think, 'Hey, we don't have to endure unfair treatment. We can stand up for ourselves.'"

Sign up for Scene's weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.