Local Starbucks workers to vote on forming union, first in Salem

Starbucks at 3904 Commercial St. S.E. in Salem on Tuesday, May 31, 2022. (Ardeshir Tabrizian/Salem Reporter)

Workers at a southeast Salem Starbucks may soon be the first in the city to unionize.

In a letter published Thursday, workers for the Starbucks at Southeast Commercial Street and Oakhill Avenue said they intend to form a union, citing concerns including being short on staff, products and working machinery as well as low pay.

The effort if successful would make the Salem store one of 13 unionized Starbucks stores in Oregon, with currently seven in Eugene and five in the Portland area, according to SB Workers United, a union that represents 150 to 200 Starbucks workers in the state.

Of the store’s 27 employees, 21 have verbally agreed to join a new union, according to Ashley Gregory,  a 20-year-old barista who has been at Starbucks for a year and signed the letter. 

They are waiting for the chance to officially vote, which could take up to six weeks. She said the next step would be a National Labor Relations Board election.

“We love where we work, we love our partners, we love what we do, we just know that it can be better,” Gregory told Salem Reporter. “I just know that I’m going to be drained because one person calls out, then I have to do like four people’s jobs.”

Gregory also does not believe their workers are compensated enough for the work they do. She said she earns $14 an hour, and shift supervisors make closer to $17-$19 an hour.

Many may believe baristas “shouldn’t even be making that much,” she said. “But also, we still deserve to live comfortably, and we still deserve to pay our bills and we still deserve to be able to go to the doctor. And at this moment in time, we are not able to do that comfortably.”

A Starbucks spokesperson responding to the letter told Salem Reporter Tuesday that they are “listening and learning” from the employees.

“We’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed,” they said in an email.

The company did not respond to a follow-up question about whether they plan to voluntarily recognize the union or will force it to go to an election. Historically, Starbucks has not voluntarily recognized unions. 

Gregory said she believes workers are not unionized at more Starbucks stores due to a lack of understanding and stigma around unions. 

She said that in the era of Tik Tok and other social media platforms, drink orders have become “out of control” with add-ons. Workers have to follow a strict timeframe per customer of three minutes from arriving to ordering, which means one person calling out sick can have a major impact.

“If we don’t have that extra person to help with the customizations or to just even give us the product we need, we are behind on times, and it’s just chaotic and we all feel it. It just sucks the life out of us,” she said.

Workers wrote in the letter that they run out of products “constantly” and that their machinery breaks weekly.

Gregory also said some customers are asked on their Starbucks app to take a survey on the quality of their drinks and the barista’s service.

“The drink part makes sense to me, but grading on us on how well we talk to customers at a window in a high-pressure environment is the part that I can’t do,” she said.

The responses then go toward that worker’s “customer connection” score. She said poor ratings prompt conversations about focusing on customer connections, not turning their backs to customers and making sure to converse with them.

“Some people don’t want to talk or some people just can’t continue a conversation, and they don’t take into account those things,” she said.

Gregory said she doesn’t want the unionization conversation to focus on Starbucks alone.

“Workers are the backbone of our society, and yet we are trod on and ground underfoot, given the bare minimum, considered ‘essential’ one day and then disposable the next,” the workers wrote in the letter. ”We have seen the profits that many big-name companies – Starbucks among them – make, and we have seen that number go up, and up, and up, receiving only the leftover crumbs as our reward. Consider this our declaration and our example to our fellow ‘essential’ workers of all kinds throughout the nation: we are worth more than this.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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