By Eleanor Ferguson

$11 billion.

That’s how much Starbucks Corporation’s market value dropped after consumer boycotts over suing the Starbucks Workers United union for trademark infringement. On Oct. 20th, 2023, the union posted a tweet “in solidarity with the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination,” prompting swift corporate backlash.

Three baristas came forward to share their stories about working for Starbucks on campus and in Louisville. The latter two baristas’ names have been changed for protection. The first chose to use his name.

Chance Brown: The long fight for unionization

Chance Brown was a senior in high school when he began working for Starbucks in July of 2021. He’d just moved to Louisville, and didn’t have many friends—Starbucks helped him get out of his comfort zone.

When the company retaliated against people who spoke up for the union, his store tried to unionize. During that time, he explained, there were periods when managers would pull baristas to the back of the store and try to persuade them to vote against the union. His manager told him if he voted for the union, his benefits would be at risk of being taken away. This caused a divide between the workers, and made the work environment “more intense and uncomfortable.”

In retaliation for wanting to unionize, sometimes hours were cut. There was a period where Brown was only scheduled 8 hours a week. Because of this, for a time, he lost his health benefits.

The worst part, Brown said, was his store was a “high incident store.”

“Incidents” here can mean several things including being verbally or physically attacked by customers.

Once, a customer used vulgar language in the drive-through to the speaker box because Brown said they couldn’t accept cash, leading to items being thrown back through the drive-thru window and bangs on the back door. There were days when Brown, due to staffing shortages, was the only one making drinks while simultaneously dealing with frequent microaggressions. The store manager at the time “only cared about how fast we got the job done, and picked favorites.”

His store was extremely active in the fight for store unionization. Once they got enough votes to unionize, they started striking to bring awareness to how Starbucks treats their workers. While they were striking, drivers honked their horns in support of their efforts. They gained a lot of public attention doing so.

To Brown, Starbucks should “actually listen to what baristas are saying and treat them as people who have lives instead of [as] dollar signs.”

He was disappointed with Starbucks’ reaction regarding the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. The company “should stop supporting the genocide that’s happening in Gaza and stop supporting Israel altogether.”

On Nov. 1, 2023, Brown was fired with only his store manager present. Normally, the store manager and the general manager were supposed to be present. To him, that amount of unprofessionalism from both his managers and coworkers shows how little respect he received during his time with the company.

Rosalina: the campus/corporate divide

“Rosalina”, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, has been working for Starbucks for two and a half years. She’s had experience at the U of L stores, but now only works at non-U of L Starbucks locations.

The main difference between corporate and Aramark stores is the pay and the uniforms. In U of L/Aramark stores, baristas are required to wear all black. Tips at U of L are not allowed, only at corporate stores (which also pay more). As far as mobile ordering, corporate stores utilize DoorDash, Uber Eats, and the Starbucks mobile app. U of L’s Starbucks only uses Grubhub.

An easy way to see if a store is corporate is to see if they’re connected to something else, like a Barnes and Noble. She prefers work at corporate stores because they’re fast-paced, helping time go by. Plus, it “feels almost like family. I’m working with people I’ve known almost three years,” Rosalina noted.

There’s mutual respect between her coworkers and managers, who’ve been good at dealing with inappropriate customers.

Because of the boycott, she believes support for the company “has gone way down.” For example, they’re increasing the frequency of sales and deals in an attempt to win customers back. The store she’s currently at, though, is not that high volume. She can see that more people are boycotting, especially on campus.

“I don’t agree with the support of Israel. I don’t think it’s a company’s place to really be involved in that … it was really sad though, with the union-busting,” Rosalina said. Starbucks was part of her childhood; she recalled going shopping with her mother and getting Starbucks together.

Now, however, “I feel like [Starbucks] has declined.”

Julie: Aramark makes things harder

“Julie” worked at the Starbucks in the Student Activities Center for a year and a half. She had to leave the job because of complications with Celiac disease. The constant handling of baked goods and breathing in the malt powder near the ovens, she worried, could impact her long-term health.

She doubted that the corporate Starbucks would retaliate against her for speaking up, but she “wouldn’t put much past the company that runs the Starbucks on campus.”

Aramark has found a way to “make it impossible or very difficult for this campus’s Starbucks to unionize” she soon learned.

Julie shares Brown’s love for the community of workers. She stated the people she worked with were wonderful; it felt like they always had each other’s back when it came to safety.

The store itself though, didn’t. When there was a large police presence, or “tornadoes, snowstorms, anything where the rest of campus would without a doubt be shut down, Starbucks would stay open. I simply felt like my safety did not matter to those in charge of it,” she said.

At another point during one spring break, she volunteered to work extra shifts on campus but was instead sent to a location in downtown Louisville. Walking in a more unfamiliar area of town, especially after closing the store, terrified her. It certainly didn’t help that this lack of feeling safe was only exacerbated by communication issues, particularly in finding a convenient, well-lit parking garage.

“They had proven to me that my safety was worth less to them than the time it would have taken to look up the address to the parking garage that they themselves parked in every day and send it to a frightened twenty-year-old,” she said.

It wasn’t all gloom; the very next week she broke her hand, requiring a splint for the next 2 months. Her team lead made sure she was able to keep her shifts and work at the register exclusively until her hand healed.

As far as the boycotts, “Starbucks should listen to what [they] are saying. Neither side of this is going away any time soon,” she said. “I can’t imagine it would be so difficult for Starbucks to find a way to treat their employees with more humanity and disaffiliate with genocidal nations.”

For Julie, it’s “a rare example of a boycott genuinely rattling a corporation of this magnitude, and I’d like to see it continue.”

According to WHAS11, as of May 2023, Louisville has five unionized Starbucks locations. The workers quoted here say union-busting, inadequate staffing and suing the company’s largest union for its support of Palestine has left Starbucks at an inflection point.

Photo Courtesy // Louisville Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP).