With a vote of 19-8, workers at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, have officially become the first U.S. employees in the global coffee shop behemoth to form a union. The victory must have been all the sweeter after federal labor officials permitted three locations to vote separately, rejecting the company’s effort to force all 20 cafes around Buffalo to hold a single vote.

Starbucks employees and supporters react as votes are read during a viewing of their union election Dec. 9 in Buffalo, N.Y. Starbucks workers voted to unionize over the company’s objections. Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

One of the other stores rejected the drive 12-8. Good. Let each group of workers determine for themselves how they want to relate to their management. It was precisely this type of site-specific decision-making that the guarantee of a store-by-store vote was supposed to safeguard. The third store’s vote remains undecided, as a number of ballots were challenged.

Starbucks is in that rarefied group of American companies that have punched through the realm of commerce and become cultural touchstones, its green mermaid logo hanging over doorways on corners all around the world. Yet it has been historically antagonistic to unionization, with the Buffalo workers alleging that the company engaged in a pattern of anti-labor action including threats and surveillance, as well as flying in executives such as founder and former CEO (and, briefly, presidential candidate) Howard Schultz. (The company has denied claims of illegal interference.)

In anticipation of the votes, the company announced it would be raising its nationwide starting wage to $15 an hour and changing its scheduling to make shifts more predictable and less haphazard, among other things. These were welcome changes, and Starbucks was right to enact them. However, in thinking that they might head off the union drives, the company betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of their purpose. Workers who choose to unionize certainly want better wages and benefits and working conditions, but, more broadly, they want a voice within the company.

Starbucks should stand by and allow its workers across the country to make the decision that’s right for them, understanding that having this option will make its workforce stronger and more invested in the company’s success.


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