Starbucks union vote count in Arizona postponed, ballots impounded

Protesters outside the Starbucks's Seattle headquarters. February 2022

Jessica Fu

A Starbucks request for review is holding up the company’s latest union vote. Workers, however, say they’re undeterred.

Starbucks employees at a Mesa, Arizona, location were awaiting the tally of their votes on whether to unionize Wednesday—instead, the count was delayed and the ballots impounded by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the result of an ongoing request for review from the Starbucks corporation. The votes will be held for an unspecified future vote, an NLRB spokesman told The Counter via email.

Pictured above: Workers protest outside of Starbucks’s Seattle headquarters on February 15, 2022.

The news was a minor setback for workers at the store, who had started casting their ballots in January on whether to organize with Starbucks Workers United (SWU), a branch of the Service Employees International Union affiliate Workers United. The hold was the result of a procedural delay: In early January, a regional NLRB director in Phoenix, Arizona, ruled that Starbucks workers at the Mesa location could vote to unionize as a store, rather than being required to vote as part of a larger regional unit. Starbucks subsequently requested a review of this ruling. Because the NLRB hadn’t issued a decision on that request for review by Wednesday, the scheduled vote count was postponed.

Challenging a labor board official’s decision isn’t a new move for Starbucks. The company followed a similar process ahead of union elections at three stores in the Buffalo, New York, area late last year, arguing against the decision of a regional official in New York that the stores could vote individually. The labor board ultimately rejected the company’s arguments, leading to a historic victory for the workers: the first company-owned Starbucks store to be represented by a union since the 1980s. (A second store was later certified in January as having voted in favor of unionization; a third store voted against unionization.)

“It’s basically, functionally, the same argument the company has made in every case so far and lost on,” Ian Hayes, a lawyer for the union, said in a press conference following the delay announcement. Though there’s no guarantee the NLRB will rule the same in this case, Hayes added, “I just don’t have any doubt that we’re going to get the same result: The request will be denied.”

Despite the delay in Arizona, the past month has seen a flurry of unionization activity across the country. Starbucks workers at four locations across New York City and Long Island went public with their petitions to unionize just last week, covering an estimated 170 employees. And on Monday, workers at the chain’s flagship roastery in Seattle announced a unionization push, the fifth in the company’s hometown. According to SWU, as of Wednesday morning, 97 stores across 26 separate states have pending petitions for union elections. Last week, the Seattle City Council passed a resolution to support Starbucks workers in their push for unionization; a similar resolution was introduced in Chicago on Wednesday.

“We had people that were throwing up in the back-of-house, and our managers said, ‘Oh, just stay in the back, you’re fine.”

Workers this week also organized a first-of-its-kind protest outside of Starbucks’s Seattle headquarters, calling on the company to end what they described as a pattern of union-busting practices.

“What’s disgusting? Union-busting,” a crowd of around 70 workers and supporters chanted in front of the company’s head office. The rally included speeches from two former workers from a store in Memphis, Tennessee, whom Starbucks had recently fired after they had tried to form a union. The company told local news outlets that the layoffs were due to safety concerns, but workers suspected they were retaliatory. Beto Sanchez, one of the fired workers, described his former work environment as one that was unsafe for both staff and customers. (The Counter reached out to Starbucks for comment, and will update this post if the company responds.)

“We’ve had partners that were positive and exposed to Covid that were not sent home and were instead told to stay and work with us,” Sanchez told the crowd. “We had people that were throwing up in the back-of-house, and our managers said, ‘Oh, just stay in the back, you’re fine.”

Workers who had voted in the Mesa store election said at Wednesday’s press conference that they were not deterred, and that they expected to celebrate a victory once the votes are ultimately counted. 

“Initially, today, we had this set up and we were planning to go celebrate after, but now we are kind of free,” said Michelle Hejduk, a shift supervisor. “So I say we go out and start organizing some more stores in this time, right?”

Matthew Sedacca is a Reporting Fellow at The Counter, focusing on the nation’s recovery efforts from the Covid-19 pandemic across the food industry. He previously worked at The New York Times and won a National Magazine Award for his writing on the histories of residential buildings for New York magazine.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.