Closely watched union vote at US Starbucks nears a climax
Starbucks [AFP]

The ballots have been cast and, on Thursday, employees of three Starbucks cafes in New York state will learn whether they have created the first unions at outlets owned by the retail coffee giant in the United States.

The move to unionize by baristas and shift supervisors, in the face of fierce resistance from Starbucks management, has drawn national attention.

A "yes" vote might have a knock-on effect -- not just for Starbucks, but for other US firms like Amazon who are fighting similar efforts by workers to organize.

Staff at the trio of Starbucks cafes in Buffalo near the Canadian border had until Wednesday to return their ballots, which were mailed out mid-November.

"We want a seat at the bargaining table," proclaims "Starbucks Workers United" -- a campaign launched by some 50 workers who asked for the election in August.

A count is expected to commence at 1800 GMT on Thursday under the purview of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Like the union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, the Starbucks election has attracted attention far beyond Buffalo.

The campaign shows how workers are becoming more assertive at a time when tight labor markets have given employees more clout, said Cedric de Leon, a labor expert at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

"The bargaining power of workers is very high at the moment," de Leon told AFP.

There have been high-profile actions at other companies, such as a five-week strike at tractor maker John Deere & Co. earlier this fall.

And some 4.2 million Americans left their jobs in October, part of a phenomenon dubbed "The Great Resignation" that has added to the tightness in labor markets.

Starbucks opposition

Organizers of the Buffalo campaign are optimistic about their prospects.

"The pandemic was a catalyst, for certain," said Michelle Eisen, who has worked at Starbucks for more than a decade.

"But working conditions began to decline before that," Eisen said, adding that she is paid only $1.20 more per hour than new hires.

Union leaders have criticized Starbucks' conduct during the campaign, calling out brass-knuckle corporate tactics that seemingly conflict with the brand's progressive image.

The coffee chain, which recently announced that it was lifting its minimum wage to $15 an hour, did not respond to inquiries from AFP.

Officials have argued that a union will disrupt the company's direct relationship with workers, dubbed "partners" in the chain's lingo.

Union supporters say Starbucks has sent in about 200 managers and supervisors, who have cycled through the stores since August, in an apparent effort to win over undecided employees.

The company's longtime architect and former CEO, Howard Schultz, led a meeting with employees in November.

Starbucks tried unsuccessfully to persuade the NLRB to replace the current election plan with one that comprises the 20-store region around Buffalo, which would presumably boost management's odds of victory.

'Psychological warfare'

The results could also be appealed, especially on the question of which specific employees are permitted to vote. Organizers say Starbucks rushed to hire new staff ahead of the election.

Whether by bringing in outside supervisors or urging employees to vote "no" in a stream of texts and emails, "it really is psychological warfare," barista James Skretta said earlier this month.

"Starbucks' union-busting activities have swayed a good number of people actually towards supporting the union," he added.

Union backers say Buffalo is just the start of an effort that has already spread to the southwestern state of Arizona, where workers recently demanded an election.

"Why is Starbucks so worried about the unionization efforts at three locations when they have almost 9,000 locations?" de Leon said.

"It would start a wave within the company. It's already beginning."