Stephanie Elliott talks with U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree on May 20 about why she and other employees at the Starbucks in Biddeford are trying to form a union at the coffee shop. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

On the day workers at the Starbucks in Biddeford went public with their efforts to unionize, barista Stephanie Elliott, 25, said she was surprised by the strong show of solidarity from customers.

Some pumped their arms when they came to the drive-thru window. Some offered congratulations. The governor and other elected officials praised organizers for advocating for better working conditions.

Not all of Elliott’s co-workers at the Starbucks on Alfred Street were as surprised to see that kind of enthusiasm in Biddeford, a city whose history is inseparable from the workers who labored in the textile mills.

“Biddeford is such a workers town. It’s what it was built on,” said ChloeViolet Corral, a 19-year-old barista who grew up in the city and has worked at the store for more than a year.

The unionization drive announced May 13 at the Biddeford store is the first at a Starbucks in Maine. It made Maine the 35th state with workers moving to join Starbucks United. Most of the Biddeford workers behind the effort are in their 20s, continuing a long tradition of young Mainers being active in unions.

Starting with successful union votes in December at two Starbucks stores in the Buffalo, New York, workers have filed for a union election at more than 260 of the company’s 9,000 U.S. stores. The union has prevailed with the backing of more than half the workers at the vast majority of stores that have voted.


Since the Buffalo Starbucks workers launched their effort, similar campaigns have been launched at other major companies, including Amazon. In Maine, workers at Maine Medical Center, the Bangor Daily News, the Portland Museum of Art, Bates College, Waterville KVCAP, Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Transit and the Kittery Water District have voted to unionize in the past year.

Across the country, the number of union workers has been on the decline. In 2021, the number of American workers who belong to unions fell by 241,000 to 14 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That represents 10.3 percent of wage and salary workers. In 1983, the earliest year with comparable data, there were 17.7 million union workers, representing 20.1 percent of such workers.

Support for unions, on the other hand, is the highest it’s been since 1965. A 2021 Gallup poll found 68 percent of those surveyed approve of unions, up from 52 percent a decade ago. Support is even higher among younger workers, at 71 percent.

Historically, young workers like the ones in Biddeford have been especially active at unionized workplaces in Maine, according to the Maine AFL-CIO. Young union members at Bath Iron Works and the Sappi Mill in Skowhegan led efforts in the past two years to reject company offers and win better contracts through collective action.

Ash Macomber talks with U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree about why she and other empkoyees at the Starbucks in Biddeford are trying to form a union there. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In Biddeford, the decision to explore unionizing didn’t begin until months after Buffalo, said Ash Macomber, a shift supervisor who has been with the company for four years. Over that time, Macomber, 27, watched multiple partners – as Starbucks refers to its workers – leave, frustrated with variable schedules and low wages.

“I wanted to give them a reason to stay,” she said. “That’s my ultimate goal: to better everyone’s lives.”


There also was a growing sense that being a partner at Starbucks didn’t truly feel like being a partner at all.

“When I first joined, I had this impression of Starbucks as a very progressive company, a very inclusive place, a place I would be considered a partner,” said Kaylee Makara, 21, who started working at the store four months ago. “I found through my co-workers and their experiences, and now this nationwide movement, that that’s not necessarily the case.”

Organizing committee members say they have been forced to come to work sick and have gotten little support from management in their efforts to protect themselves from COVID-19. Many employees have picked up second jobs because pay, which they say starts just above $14 an hour at the Biddeford store, fails to keep up with the rising cost of living.

While Starbucks has good benefits, including paid tuition for online courses at Arizona State University, Macomber and other employees say it is difficult to deal with hours that constantly change. Her hours vary from 20 to 35 a week, she said. If at some point she isn’t able to work 20 hours each week, she’ll lose her benefits, including those that pay for her ASU classes.

Elliott, who also works as a nanny, said it’s difficult to deal with schedule changes if you are balancing two jobs. It’s also frustrating, she said, that newer workers don’t get enough training, leaving shifts short-staffed during rushes.

“We are human. We are baristas, we are caretakers, we are therapists at the window. But we are also just people,” Elliott said. “We deserve to have that comfort of working and not having to worry that everything is slowly falling apart. That weight shouldn’t fall on us. It should be on Starbucks.”


“I think we’ve all been in the situation where we felt like we had to do more than one person’s job at the same time,” Macomber added.

Starbucks, based in Seattle, has criticized efforts to unionize. Last July, the National Labor Relations Board found that the company unlawfully retaliated against two Philadelphia baristas involved with organizing by closely monitoring their public social media activity, attempting to gauge employees’ support for the organizing efforts, and unlawfully spying on protected conversations between one of the baristas and other employees.

“We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country,” a Starbucks spokesperson said after the company was notified of the Biddeford effort. “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed. We respect our partners’ right to organize and are committed to following the (National Labor Relations Board) process.”

On May 20, four members of the organizing committee met with U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who had reached out to them. They sat together at a table outside of the store while the baristas described both their frustrations and why they love the company.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree talks with, from left, Ash Macomber, Kaylee Makara, Stephanie Elliot and ChloeViolet Corral, four employees at the Starbucks in Biddeford who are trying to form a union at the coffee shop. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Pingree said after their meeting that many service industry workers she talks to about unionizing are most concerned about schedules that change weekly or not being able to count on steady hours. Younger workers may not have grown up in union households, but find joining a union is an effective way to improve their working conditions, she said.

“I’m really excited to see young, empowered workers saying ‘I want a say. If they’re going to call me a partner, what does that mean?'” said Pingree, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 1st District. “They thought they’d have a say and it would mean something. It turns out maybe you have to be in a union to have that say.”


Macomber said the organizing committee hopes to learn by mid-June whether there will be a National Labor Relations Board hearing on how the election will proceed or if the company will waive the hearing. The election could be held by mail or in person, which will be decided at the hearing and through a stipulation with the company.

While they’re waiting to vote, the Biddeford workers say they continue to focus on doing the jobs they love. They say they enjoy connecting with their customers and believe in what the company says it stands for.

“It’s really just holding Starbucks accountable for what they say and ensuring we get the experience we deserve and the experience we were promised,” Elliott said. “They promise us that we’ll be nurtured and we’ll be supported and it’s a partner connection. This is a fantastic company or we wouldn’t be here.”

“If we didn’t love the company, we wouldn’t be fighting for this,”  said Macomber.

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