Unionized Starbucks Employees Fight for Abortion Benefits

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Demonstrators protest what they perceive to be anti-union tactics outside a Starbucks in Great Neck, N.Y., on Aug. 15, 2022. (Thomas A. Ferrara/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

When Alisha Humphrey, a partner at Starbucks and Starbucks Workers United organizer in Oklahoma, read the company report June 15 announcement that they could not guarantee abortion access to their unionized employees, recalled a feeling of horror.

“It was terrifying,” Humphrey said. “Staking access to life-saving abortion care to unionized stores is highly despicable.”

This announcement came just a week before the official publication. Dobbs vs. Jackson decision-filtered weeks before by Politico—which overturned Roe vs. Wade and dismantled federal protections against abortion in the United States. Now, labor experts and members of the Starbucks Workers United, which has unionized in more than 200 Starbucks stores in the US as of August 9, 2022, are concerned not only about unionized employees’ access to the necessary care for abortion, but also for the future of the workers. rights in Starbucks.

Partners fear loss of access to abortion

On May 15, Starbucks Executive Vice President Sara Kelly announced to Starbucks employees or partners that people enrolled in the Starbucks health care plan will receive a “medical travel reimbursement benefit to access an abortion.”

But a month later, Kelly added the following update: “In union-represented stores, federal law requires good faith collective bargaining on all wages, benefits, and working conditions. That means Starbucks can’t make any promises or guarantees about any benefits.”

Laila Dalton, a former Starbucks partner in Arizona and a continuing advocate for Starbucks Workers United, said she had a very similar experience to Humphrey’s upon hearing the news.

“Starbucks is setting up our loss of rights, and they’re using it as a tool to manipulate us,” Dalton said.

Kit Grob, a Starbucks partner and an organizer with Starbucks Workers United in Utah, agreed: “Having them literally put their reproductive rights above their right to have a good paying job and a safe workplace is just cruel to me. And it spits in the face of everything Starbucks says it stands for.”

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The corporation is known for its typically progressive policies, including its outspoken support for LGBTQ+ rights and its 2017 pledge to recruit 10,000 refugees worldwide.

Starbucks is setting up the loss of our rights, and they are using it as a tool to manipulate us.

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Unionized women earn higher and more equitable wages, have greater access to affordable health benefits, and are more likely to have the right not to be fired without cause, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Equal access to abortion is particularly a “working class issue,” according to Dalton, who emphasized how much it particularly affects Starbucks baristas, who earn an average of $17 an hour, or $33,000 a year.

“People who have money, who aren’t really part of the working class, can fly out of state, can fly out of the country to get an abortion,” Dalton said. “But people who are grassroots workers like us, we can’t do that and we can’t afford to take time off work or pay for abortions.”

Discouraging unions with the promise of access to abortion

Labor experts and organizers on the ground allege that the Starbucks messages constituted an act of intimidation and union busting. While Starbucks does not explicitly deny any partner access to abortion care through the employee health plan, Starbucks says it cannot guarantee such access to union employees.

Steven Greenhouse, a former New York Times labor reporter, identified Starbucks’ language as a possible anti-union tactic. “The fact that Starbucks is saying we’re going to give these benefits to our non-union workers, but hey, we can’t give them to our union workers sounds like a real anti-union move,” Greenhouse said.

Robert Reich, President Bill Clinton’s former labor secretary, took to social media to express similar concern about union busting at Starbucks.

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“This is taking union busting to a whole new level. @Starbucks is using abortion rights as a cudgel to intimidate workers from unionizing. This is precisely why we cannot depend on corporations to protect human rights,” he tweeted on June 29.

Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest trade union federation in the US, commented on Twitter: “It is simply wrong to set up this access [to abortion] instead of protecting all workers.”

“It is absolutely typical and standard for an employer who is trying to discourage their employees from unionizing to say that benefits could be in jeopardy,” said Rebecca Givan, a professor in the Rutgers University school of management and labor relations.

According to a July 2020 report of the Economic Policy Institute, it is “standard issue” in anti-union strategies to emphasize that employees are not guaranteed to maintain current wages and benefits.

“Starbucks cannot make any promises or guarantees about any benefits and we communicate with our partners about this,” a Starbucks spokesperson wrote. “This underscores one of our biggest concerns: that partners are not receiving accurate information from Workers United about the bargaining process or their existing benefits. Each store’s collective bargaining will be different and we cannot predict or guarantee what the results will be.”

It is absolutely typical and standard for an employer who is trying to discourage their employees from unionizing to say that benefits could be in jeopardy.

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Greenhouse agreed that Starbucks technically cannot guarantee these benefits due to the unknowns of collective bargaining, but notes that unions are unlikely to deny access to necessary health services, such as abortion.

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“If and when Starbucks offers this to non-union employees, union workers who are engaged in pending contract negotiations would say ‘of course, one hundred percent,’” he said.

“There’s nothing stopping Starbucks from extending those benefits to unionized stores, they just have to ask us first,” Grob explained.

Although Starbucks has presented significant barriers to its organized workers, Greenhouse said organizers and activists are inspiring more young people across the country to unionize. “Starbucks stores have really inspired people, showing them that you can really be successful by unionizing even against a very anti-union company,” he said.

American democracy is at a dangerous tipping point: from the disappearance of abortion rights, to the lack of pay equity and parental leave, to the spiraling rise in maternal mortality, to attacks on trans health. If left unchecked, these crises will lead to widening gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Millisecond. she has been forging feminist journalism: reporting, rebelling and telling the truth from the front lines, defending the Equal Rights Amendment and centering the stories of those most affected. With everything at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support for Millisecond. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. for as little as $5 every monthYou will receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts and invitations to Millisecond. Studies events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity..

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