Well, it happened again. On Monday, Starbucks announced plans to close another store in town, bringing the local total to seven. This time it’s the one on Broadway and Denny, the first Seattle location to unionize in the recent wave of organizing. Four of the seven closed cafes were unionized, and the effort to unionize the Westlake shop was "picking up steam" before the company shuttered it, according to one organizer.
A spokesperson told the Seattle Times that the company’s concern for worker safety led to the closure at Broadway and Denny, saying its “attempts to address safety concerns at the location were not effective.” But workers at that shop and at five other closed shops in Seattle tell a different story.
They say the closures all followed a similar pattern, one designed to bust up union activity rather than to address safety. Now, workers worry about following the company’s safety directives for fear of having their own stores closed.
Starbucks barista Rachel Ybarra said workers have complained about safety issues at the Broadway and Denny location since she started there two-and-a-half years ago. She’s witnessed people in the store on drugs, having mental health crises, and—less frequently—becoming violent. To help deal with that problem, she and her co-workers have asked the company to hire a security guard. In fact, she said, they decided to unionize partly to get Starbucks’ attention on the issue. But even after their unanimous 9-0 union win on March 22 of this year, the company still refused to put a security guard in their store.
During a closed-store meeting in late May, a Starbucks district manager told the employees they didn’t need a security guard and wouldn’t get one, multiple workers told The Stranger. But then, a month later, the company’s mood appeared to change.
Four workers from the store—Ybarra, Stephanie Neighbors, Olivia Cantey, and Bolt Stuart—say that in June their manager started encouraging them to submit more “incident reports.” Though these internal reports are usually reserved for events that require workers to leave their duties for more than a few minutes, management encouraged them to start filing the reports “even if somebody came into the store acting a little off,” Ybarra said.
According to the workers, management also said that every report should include a police report number, meaning they should call 911 for each of these “incidents.” If they did as instructed, management told the workers, then corporate would hire a security guard as they had with the nearby store on Olive Way.
So, the workers followed orders and waited for help from the company. This week, the company announced the closure. According to Cantey, a barista, the “mitigation efforts” the company mentioned were just “us begging them to do something and them not doing anything.”
Same Deal in Pioneer Square
Workers at the Starbucks store at 505 Union in Pioneer Square had security issues of a different kind. Due to its unique location outside Union Station, overlapping transit security teams monitored the area outside the shop, but workers wanted a security guard inside to help with their bathroom. Customers complained about its condition, and workers said they relayed those concerns to their bosses. According to those workers, however, Starbucks was hesitant to pay for security to control access to it since another firm, Vulcan Real Estate, already oversaw security for the building.
Mari Cosgrove, who worked at that location for four years, said the “years-long” discussion with the company about getting a security guard in that store stopped after workers submitted their union petition in March. Then, in June, the company delivered a new directive.
“We were encouraged to write reports, no matter how small the incident was,” Cosgrove said. “Even if it was just a customer who smelled bad.” She said the district manager assured her that filing these incident reports with corporate and calling 911 for anything serious would get the company’s attention.
Later this summer, after the store’s workers won their union election 6 to 3, Starbucks shift supervisor Erin Bray said the company sent in a security consultant. According to Bray, workers told the consultant they felt safe in the café. Nevertheless, on July 11, Starbucks announced a plan to close 505 Union and four other Seattle stores over “safety concerns.”
In the store meeting about the announcement, Bray said a Starbucks regional manager cherry-picked extreme incidents in the neighborhood to justify the closure, citing a dead body recently found nearby outside of work hours. At that “belittling” and “gaslighting” meeting, Bray said workers weren’t there for that incident, and many expressed outrage that the corporation was telling employees how they supposedly felt.
Same Deal in Ballard and Elsewhere
Over at the 9999 Holman Road store in Ballard, workers voted 11-1 to join Starbucks Workers United on April 29. As with the workers at the Pioneer Square location, one of their main concerns was their bathroom.
Four workers confirmed the store’s bathroom had been out of service for months before the union vote due to a similar disagreement about whether Starbucks or the attached QFC was responsible for cleaning it. For months, it was even missing a stall door. But after the vote, barista Eli Adams said, the company stopped communicating with them.
Then, in June, a district manager visited the store for a “team-building and problem-solving” meeting, wherein she, too, issued a new directive: start filing incident reports about the bathroom. Workers said the manager told them the company wanted to make sure they were taken care of, and the incident reports would create a paper trail for Starbucks to solve this problem. They knew other stores had been closed for safety concerns, but theirs was a successful store, and their problem only involved a bathroom door. So workers said they filed an incident report every day the bathroom remained out of order.
On August 23, the manager at 9999 Holman announced they’d surpassed their financial goals and had the highest “customer connection” scores in their district, according to former shift leader Sarahann Rickner. But later that day, the manager announced an urgent mandatory online meeting. Workers said they huddled around a phone in the back room as the district manager announced that their store would be shut down and transferred to QFC as a licensed store. (A representative from Starbucks noted that this move was not technically a store closure.) Workers said they asked how long the company had planned this reshuffle, but the manager wouldn’t say.
“The tone she used, the way it all went down—it felt very obvious what happened,” said Kyan Adams, a former barista at the store. Another worker speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal said, “We thought that we were creating a paper trail to help our customers and coworkers, but that paper trail was used to shut down our store.”
Workers who chose to speak anonymously out of fear of reprisal said their stores at 23rd and Jackson and at Westlake were closed under similar circumstances.
In response to all of this, a representative from Starbucks said, “When safety issues in and around a store continue to jeopardize the well-being of our partners, we will close the location and work with partners to help relocate them to other stores.”
Divide and Conquer
When the company closes these stores, Starbucks gives workers the option to transfer to different locations. However, some workers say the stores Starbucks offers aren't convenient. And while managers offered workers consistent hours at the new stores for two months in accordance with a federally mandated contract, many now find managers cutting their hours.
Bray is one of those workers. “Union workers from closed stores have been transferred into already fully staffed stores that can’t or won’t offer the stability in hours that we require to make ends meet. Our contract protected our income for a limited time, but now that time has passed,” she said.
One worker who was transferred after their store shut down said they’ve had their hours cut significantly since their two-month grace period ended. This is especially concerning, since they lose their health care benefits if they dip below 25 hours a week.
As for the Holman Road workers, those who agreed to be transferred initially reported being happy at their new stores, but now that their two-month transition period has ended, they say their hours are already being cut.
In a statement, a representative from Starbucks said, “Those partners are encouraged to connect with the union if they have concerns about the effects bargaining agreement that was proposed and agreed to on their behalf.”
Workers at open stores now worry that filing incident reports will trigger store closures and disrupt their lives. Daisy Federspiel-Baier, a shift supervisor, described her unionized store at 4147 University Way as a “high-incident” store. They have a security guard. “I want to submit incident reports in hopes that we can get help, we can get training, we can get resources for us,” she said. “But at this point, it's hard to trust corporate.”
This Isn’t Just a Seattle Thing
Marina Multhaup, associate of Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP and counsel for Workers United, said workers from closed stores across the country tell her they were advised to report every incident, even customers raising their voices. “Starbucks has used their workers’ real concerns about safety against them,” she said.
“We have alleged since the beginning that these store closures are intended to retaliate against stores that are unionized, prevent unionization among stores talking about it, and chill union efforts across the country,” she said.
She also noted the coincidence that the December 9 closure of Broadway and Denny will fall on the first anniversary of the first successful union vote in Buffalo, NY. “Schultz can't get his ego around the fact that his workers aren’t kissing his feet,” she said. “They're demanding a part of the pie, and Starbucks is angry. It feels spiteful. It feels personal.”
Meanwhile, the workers from Broadway and Denny aren’t giving up. “If Starbucks wants me to leave the company, they will have to have me killed,” Ybarra said. “I will die before I let this movement die. We’re going to have a fucking union at Starbucks. They can't just close down all our stores until it's gone.”