Report from Starbucks’ Red Cup Rebellion

By Joel Sronce
All images by the author

Report originally published at Tempest Magazine.

On a cold, windy Thursday in Philly, Starbucks workers formed picket lines outside of four stores to join their coworkers across the country in the Red Cup Rebellion. Withholding their labor succeeded in completely shutting down the stores at 34th & Walnut Street and 20th & Market Street. Elsewhere, rallying workers at 22nd & South encouraged anyone picking up a mobile order to not cross the picket line and instead to take a leaflet on how to get a refund. (Word on the street is that the customer service line had over half an hour wait time for most of the day!) As this tweet shows, many Philadelphians were proud to respect the picket line.

Out on the pickets were two workers who agreed to share their experiences as part of the incredible labor movement that Starbucks partners have created over the past twelve months. Sarah has been working at the 20th & Market Street store for almost four years; yet in a city with a soaring cost of living, she’s currently making just $15.50 an hour as a barista and barista-trainer. Like so many of her coworkers, she struggles for better working conditions, staffing, scheduling and pay. Similar to the experience of food-service workers across the country, her store has been so constantly understaffed that some of her coworkers have had to get food stamps or apply for disability in order to be able to afford their rent, insurance, bills, and debt payments. However, years of such conditions have not turned Sarah away from the struggle. Quite the opposite. Since May, she has been her store’s representative on the NCAT (the National Contract Action Team), which organizes national direct actions, including strikes.

Across the Schuylkill River in West Philly, Sil has been working at the 34th & Walnut Street Starbucks for several months, making $15 an hour. Facing similar working conditions as Sarah, Sil knows well what she’s up against.

“Winning our union was only half the fight; we still have to bargain for a contract to get the things we need, and if we don’t come to an agreement after a year, the company can decertify our union,” she explained. “It’s clear that Starbucks is trying to run out the clock, so we have to increase the pressure! Thankfully, due to our incredible partners, we were able to prevent the store from opening at all, and had a really amazing and inspiring day on the picket line.”

Neither Sarah nor Sil could overemphasize the solidarity that they share with their fellow Starbucks workers across the country, almost all of whom they will never know. Nationwide, as many as 111 stores were on strike on Thursday – a remarkable accomplishment on its own – and both of these Philly workers felt an immense sense of community.

“We feel incredibly connected with our other striking and unionized stores,” Sil told me. “In fact, I think having that solidarity across the country really helped people feel confident enough to come out to picket. So much of our strength as a movement comes from being able to coordinate and compare notes nationally.”

And in Philly, it’s not only their fellow Starbucks partners from whom Sarah and Sil find solidarity. Across the city, it seems as commonplace as an Eagles jersey. All four of the picket lines were supported by local activist groups and by members of other unions, joining in chants, honking, or even bringing supplies, including the Teamsters’ famous Scabby the Rat.

“Solidarity with our community has been incredible,” Sil said. “We were getting constant honks of support from passing sanitation workers, USPS drivers, and Philly locals. A construction worker working across the street came by to tell us, ‘I always say, you can’t just be union for yourself, you have to be union for everyone.’”

As Sil went on to explain, the solidarity is working.

“Already we’ve seen material gains to non-union stores, as credit card tips–one of our first demands as a campaign–were rolled out today,” she said. “When we win our contract, it will greatly improve the lives and situations of unionized Starbucks partners, bringing with it higher base pay, reimbursement for non-slip shoes, and processes for addressing grievances in the workplace, among other things. But even before that, our campaign will also continue to win gains for non-union stores as Starbucks relinquishes more and more crumbs to discourage the growth of the movement, like the tips today and the more lenient dress code a few months ago. We’re going to keep pushing until we get what we need, and lift everyone else up with us!”

Yet despite the solidarity they’ve already received, and despite the momentum from all their organizing and most recently from the Red Cup Rebellion, there is a long road ahead. Both workers have messages to the greater community, from whom more and more support will be required.

“Don’t cross any picket lines you may see,” Sarah said. “Express support on social media and in stores, put pressure on Starbucks to bargain with us in good faith and to stop their union busting, and donate to the solidarity fund (or just leave a tip).”

Sil agrees. “Find out which stores in your area are unionized and go tell the workers you have their back!” she said. “Go into non-unionized stores and tell them they deserve to have control over their workplace. These are conversations we all need to be having every day.”

(To further support unionizing Starbucks (and other) workers in Philly, follow Philadelphia Joint Board Workers United on social media, including @phillyworkersunited on Instagram.)

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