A wave of workplace organising in the USA has seen workers in multiple Starbucks stores vote to unionise. They’re not alone, with unionisation efforts underway in Amazon, Apple and other huge companies. Workforces that suffered during the pandemic are demanding a new relationship with their employers and embracing collective action as the means to improve pay and conditions and secure labour rights. They are having to face a barrage of anti-unionisation efforts deployed by corporate titans unwilling to share vast profits. But breakthroughs are providing inspiration, and the movement to unionise is growing.

It all started in Buffalo, New York. In August 2021, workers at a Starbucks store decided to apply to hold a vote on joining a union. They were the first employees of a Starbucks-owned outlet to do so. When that vote was held in December, over two thirds voted to unionise.

It was just one of almost 9,000 Starbucks-owned outlets in the USA, but it wasn’t alone for long. It’s now reported that around 100 stores have voted to unionise, with staff joining the Workers United union. When votes are held, people are overwhelmingly saying yes: Starbucks workers have voted to unionise in 87 per cent of elections. Momentum has grown at breakneck speed.

The Starbucks victories are part of a rising pattern on unionisation in the USA. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a new reckoning with many people’s relationship to their workplace. Tough working conditions under the pandemic saw front-line workers subjected to high-risk conditions but rewarded with low pay and little job security, and with limited routes to raise grievances. As economies reopen, many workers are seeking better pay and conditions and safer work environments, and seeing collective action as the best way of doing this.

Increasing workplace organisation is winning growing public support: in surveys a majority say they would support unionisation in the company they work for. And they have high-level backing: in April President Joe Biden signalled his support for Amazon workers’ unionisation efforts. Two months before, a report by a White House taskforce issued 70 recommendations on how to encourage union membership, including by making it easier for federal employees to join unions and eliminating barriers for union organisers to talk with workers on federal property, on the basis of the principle that ‘unions benefit all of us’.

A brief history of US unionisation

Labour unions in the US can trace their origins to the Industrial Revolution with the first strike and formation of a union – the Federal Society of Journeymen Cordwainers – coming at the end of the 18th century. After this, local craft and trade unions began popping up all across the country and successful organising gave rise to landmark wins such as the shortened workday. In the 19th century, as paid labour evolved to include women, Black people and migrants, unions also began to fight for the rights of a more diverse workforce.

Several gains were made in the public sector through the National Labour Union but change was harder to secure for private sector workers. Competition for work enabled companies to keep wages down and limited workers’ bargaining power.

In the 20th century, gradual improvements in work conditions were accompanied by labour reform legislation. Of these, some of the most important included the Fair Labour Standards Act of 1938, which established a minimum wage and overtime pay, the Labour-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, which protected the rights and interests of union members, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which mandated equal pay for women and men in the same workplace, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970, which sought to ensure safe and healthy conditions for workers.

Union membership, accelerated by the 1930s Great Depression, expanded throughout this period, with post-war membership reaching a peak of 21 million in 1979. Since then membership declined with the loss of manufacturing jobs as factories shifted to global south economies and right-wing administrations pushed through neoliberal economic policies.

The recent resurgence of union organising is being led by employees of two of the country’s largest corporations: Amazon and Starbucks.

At Amazon, long efforts to unionise that have systematically been thwarted by the company began to pay off in April 2022, when workers at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York voted to join a new independent union, becoming the first unionised Amazon warehouse in the USA.

Inspiration is spreading. In April 2022 an Apple Store in Atlanta, Georgia became the first of the company’s 272 US stores to file an application for a union recognition vote. In May 2022, workers launched a unionisation drive in upmarket grocer chain Trader Joe’s.

Starbucks: decades of growth and attempts to organise

From small beginnings in Seattle in 1971, Starbucks has grown into the world’s most popular coffeehouse chain. By 2021 it boasted around 34,000 stores across 83 markets. Most of these are located in the USA, where in addition to the 8,947 stores directly operated by the company there are a further 6,497 licensed stores. With a market value of over US$100 billion it is one of the most profitable companies in the world.

Employee figures in 2021 showed that 240,000 workers were scattered across the USA, with around half working at company-operated stores. They’re far from being the country’s worst-off workers: unlike many, they have access to benefits that include health coverage, paid parental leave and educational support. But employees still report experiencing a host of problems, including understaffing, overwork and poor worker protection.

Unsurprisingly, it’s not the first time Starbucks employees have sought union representation. In 1985, Starbucks workers voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers and were then able to negotiate a contract for part-time employees that included healthcare coverage, paid leave and sick leave, rights already available to full-time employees. But just a year later, likely under pressure from management, they voted to decertify the union.

Unionisation efforts revived in 2004, when Industrial Workers of the World led a grassroots campaign across several cities to recruit Starbucks workers. Attempts continued in 2006, when four Manhattan stores ran an unsuccessful drive to increase wages and secure health benefits for more workers.

Before the breakthrough in Buffalo, the only unionised Starbucks employees were those who worked for other companies with unionised labour that ran outlets under a licensing agreement, such as hotels, airports and hospitals.

Anti-unionisation campaigns: companies strike back

As in the past, the current wave of unionisation is being met with opposition. Companies use practices that are at best dubious and at worst illegal to try to stop their employees organising.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz asserts that the company is an industry leader that gives its workers – who Starbucks insists on calling ‘partners’ – benefits beyond the standard required by many union contracts. He claims unions make it more difficult for companies to reward workers and negotiate contracts, but says the company would not discriminate against any of its partners for unionising. Amazon makes a similar argument that unions get in the way of its relationship with employees.

However strong current benefits may be, union members insist they do not match the company’s runaway success. Unions make the case that they amplify workers’ voices, raise standards through collective bargaining and provide protection for labour rights. Even unionisation campaigns can win positive change by putting pressure on companies to improve. In what seems a clear reaction to the unionisation wave, Starbucks has recently implemented two wage increases in 18 months and suspended repurchases of its shares so it could invest more in its employees.

Whatever it says publicly, by its actions it seems clear Starbucks sees unions as undesirable. During the first unionisation drive in Buffalo, the company temporarily closed several stores in the area and added new staff, something campaigners viewed as attempts to stifle unionisation momentum. For the Buffalo ballot, the company insisted that all local stores voted simultaneously, something that worked against unionisation as almost half of employees worked at more than one store during the year, which would have qualified them to vote in multiple stores. It also dispatched executives to locations where votes were being held to try to damp down momentum.

At other stores, Starbucks fired lead organisers on grounds such as alleged breaches of company policy, and threatened to remove benefits and not to renew contracts for those involved in unionisation efforts. Contradicting its initial promise, it announced in April that it will not extend new benefits to workers at unionised stores or stores that have filed for elections. It was recently accused of shutting down a unionised outlet in retaliation for activism.

Amazon is accused of using similar anti-unionisation tactics, including the deployment of rapid response teams involving former military personnel and compulsory workplace anti-union meetings and propaganda. There have been numerous reports of people being fired in retaliation for union organising.

We face a company that has proven to be determined to silence its partners’ voices at whatever cost and by whatever means. It does not seem to recognise that partners are fighting to improve the company rather than seek its demise.


Unionisation actions clash head-on with the kind of values companies like Starbucks claim they care about, which play well with socially liberal customers. Union campaigners insist that in resisting workplace organising these companies are showing their true faces.

Starbucks’ actions certainly seem consistent with its history. Although Howard Schultz spoke about the company’s early introduction of ‘gold-standard’ employee benefits, he neglected to mention that many of these were first secured during the year the United Food and Commercial Workers union was recognised. He similarly failed to mention his role in the derecognition of the union by reneging on contracts and pressuring new negotiations. Since becoming CEO in the late 1980s, Schultz has developed a reputation for resisting unionisation.

Momentum organising

In the face of anti-unionisation tactics, union organisers are using a strategy described as momentum organising, capitalising on trigger events to grow support. The pandemic was a key moment for the workers’ rights movement. Then the first victory in Buffalo was a trigger event, providing inspiration for other groups of workers to launch successful campaigns. The current job market in the USA is favourable to unionising, with high demand for workers.

Typically, organisers map out the workforce and recruit respected senior employees to lead discussions around unionisation and gain the trust of other employees. Meetings are conducted in living rooms, bars and online. Workers meet one on one to share ideas and concerns, strengthening solidary connections before scaling up. This makes anti-unionisation tactics less effective.

Workers across the USA are sharing resources, advice and motivation, and conducting training, so groups in individual stores don’t feel they are fighting alone. Social media is enabling workers to connect across the country, creating a vast online movement.

Voices from the frontline

Theresa Haas is director of global strategies of the labour union Workers United, which coordinates the Starbucks Campaign in the USA.


The Starbucks campaign has sparked the imagination of hourly wage workers across the country. It derives its strength from being fuelled from the bottom up by workers who have found solidarity among each other. Working together, across the country, they are building strength, and with each election victory their collective voice grows.

We face a company that has proven to be determined to silence its partners’ voices at whatever cost and by whatever means. It does not seem to recognise that partners are fighting to improve the company rather than seek its demise.

Despite its stated values and mission, Starbucks has shown through its actions that it is not what it claims to be – a warm and welcoming company that encourages growth within its workforce, challenges the status quo, conducts itself with transparency, dignity and respect, and holds itself accountable for results and through a lens of humanity.

Partners are seeking to help make the company the progressive employer it claims to be. They want to improve the climate and culture of the company, which they say has deteriorated over the years. In return for these efforts, the company is seeking to squelch their voices, and international civil society and the wider international community should recognise the company’s actions for what they are.

We are hopeful that the grassroots efforts driven by workers who are tired of their exploitative and unjust working conditions have set in motion a push towards transformative change for improved conditions for hourly wage workers to include dignity and respect in the workplace.

Workers all over the world should be afforded the right to organise, seek improvements and speak up against injustice and inequality wherever they see it.


This is an edited extract of our conversation with Theresa Haas. Read the full interview here.

Looking forward

The process has only just begun. Less than one per cent of Starbucks’ US workforce, including warehouse and office staff, are estimated to be unionised. There are many challenges ahead. Sometimes anti-unionisation tactics persuade workers to vote against recognition. For larger workforces, such as those in Amazon warehouses, it may be harder to build momentum and develop solidarity, and resources are strained when trying to mobilise across multiple sites at once. The challenges are harder in the southern states of the USA, which are historically less accepting of unions. The movement could be vulnerable to changes in the labour market.

But workers are not alone. When they experience anti-union backlash from their employers, they can seek redress through the National Labour Regulation Board (NLRB). This has found complaints from workers against several companies, including Starbucks, to be credible, and has initiated disciplinary procedures against them on several counts. It also recently overturned a vote against unionisation at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, ruling that Amazon had interfered; the results of the second vote are currently being disputed.

In some instances, labour board precedent has been used as a benchmark where the law was lacking. Once the NLRB files a complaint, the case goes before an administrative judge. But it can take years to reach a resolution, something that dampens the effectiveness of this process as a means of advancing justice.

Ultimately, the tide may be turning, since there is evidence that anti-unionisation efforts can backfire and galvanise support, and traditional corporate tactics, such as sending top executives into workplaces, are no longer working. The momentum to unionise shows no sign of dissipating yet. Workers across the USA are showing they have the willpower to keep rising to the challenge.


  • The US government should work to stop companies union busting and discriminating against unionised workers.
  • Workers should keep sharing success stories and winning tactics and offer solidarity to unionisation efforts in diverse workplaces.
  • Consumers should use their purchasing power to put pressure on companies to stop suppressing workplace organising.

Cover photo by REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario via Gallo Images