Starbucks workers strike during Red Cup Day

December 2, 2022

Three months after voting to unionize, the workers at Carbondale’s Starbucks location on Main Street joined those at more than 100 other stores across the country in a nationwide strike on Nov. 17. The strike coincided with the company’s Red Cup Day, which is said to be one of its busiest days of the year.

Ellen Cullen was one of the workers who took to the sidewalk along Main Street, holding a white sign with red letters that said “Starbucks on strike.” They said striking on such an important day for the corporation was vital in getting their message across.

“That’s all we can really do right now, try to get them to hear our voices,” Cullen said. “Hopefully it makes a big enough dent in their sales, because that’s, I think, the only way that they’re going to acknowledge us.”

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The strike was in response to Starbucks’s actions during contract negotiations between the company and the union, Starbucks Workers United. As described by another employee, Isaiah Shepherd, Starbucks refused to bargain with them during their scheduled meeting on Oct. 31.

“Across the nation, not only us, but even with us, we’ve had personal experience where the lawyers show up for five minutes, and then go into a private meeting that lasts for hours,” Shepherd said. “The lawyers get paid thousands of dollars, but our workers sit there at the table, getting paid nothing, volunteering to go there to try to bargain.”

Shepherd, along with many of his fellow co-workers, spent the day picketing near the drive-thru, urging potential customers to avoid going to Starbucks for the day in solidarity with the strike. Some had been there since around 4 a.m., and all were battling cold temperatures.

They also provided their own red cups, which were similar to those that Starbucks was giving away, except it bore the logo of Starbucks Workers United. The union logo also appeared on a black beanie that several of the workers wore during the strike,

“All we’re asking is a chance to bargain at this point,” Shepherd said. “A chance to talk about it.

The Nov. 17 demonstration was just one step in a long process for Starbucks workers to attain what they feel they deserve. Austin Behrens noted how common it is for movements like his store’s unionization to fall apart.

“Look at all the companies that have tried to unionize and failed over the years,” Behrens said. “This is the tactics they used. They just didn’t sit down at the table. They made it take as long as possible. They ignored their workers. And they [the workers] lost momentum.”

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So-called “union busting” is illegal in the United States, but that does not stop corporations like Starbucks from engaging in tactics that prevent workers from unionizing in the first place, let alone bargain for their demands.

“That’s why we’re out here today, it shows that we aren’t going to lose momentum, hopefully, and we can keep this fight going strong,” Behrens said.

Unions are becoming more common in the service industry, but were historically strong in blue collar jobs, especially in Southern Illinois.

“If you just think about Illinois, and the way it used to be, a lot of towns developed from coal towns,” Behrens said. “Carterville, Carbondale, Murphy[sboro], this whole area came out of coal mining, and when you think of coal miners, you think of unions.”

As manufacturing jobs are shrinking and the service industry grows, those protected jobs are becoming more and more slim. Now, workers like those at the Carbondale Starbucks are trying to recapture those same rights in their own jobs.

James Ward stood on the sidewalk, holding a sign that said “Don’t scab on Starbucks workers.” Having left his overnight shift at Intertape Polymer Group (IPG) in Carbondale at 7 a.m., Ward joined the strike in solidarity.

“I think it’s important to get them unionized, because manufacturing is shrinking and service industry jobs are growing, so they get stuck with a job that’s not unionized,” Ward said.

Being a manufacturing job, Ward’s job at IPG is part of a union, so he knows firsthand the benefits that it can have for workers.

“It pays better, and our jobs are more protected if we’re unionized,” Ward said.

Although he works in Carbondale, Ward lives in Carterville. While he stood on the sidewalk with his sign, a driver on Main Street slowed down and yelled “Y’all deserve your money!” through their car window.

It was likely that many who passed by Starbucks during the strike were in the working class, possibly heading to work themselves. The labor movement tends to go down party lines, but regardless of political affiliation, local people can sympathize with service workers fighting for what they feel they deserve.

“A lot of these people here know what it means to unionize, know that it’s really important, know that it can help the people in the community that we’re in,” Behrens said. “We’re just out here trying to make people see it from our perspective.”

As workers stood on the sidewalk and near the drive-thru, they encountered a morning’s worth of traffic. Some honked their horns as they passed by in support of the strike; others pulled into the drive-thru, where workers would talk with them about their cause.

“It feels kinda small doing stuff like this, especially in a smaller town like this, but I feel like it makes a big difference…” Cullen said. “We want to try to inspire other businesses and other people who work for those businesses to stand up for themselves.”

The cafe was closed to the public for the day, and it was estimated that only three employees were handling the drive-thru.

“To be fair, they’re scared of the repercussions of not coming into work and striking today,” Cullen said. “But I don’t think it’s as much as it normally would be. There’s only a couple of people in there.”

With so few workers and only the drive-thru available, the typical morning rush backed up all the way to the street. A combination of the slow-moving traffic and convincing from the picketers lead to what they felt was a lower turnout of customers than usual.

“This time, on a normal day, we would be packed,” Starbucks worker Sheldon Griffith said. “And then throw our biggest grossing day on top of it, and there’s not business. We’re doing well.”

At 4:51 p.m., the SIU Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) announced on Facebook that the store had closed for the day due to staff shortage, after the strike had been going for 13 hours.

The YDSA – and its non-youth counterpart, the DSA – had representation at the strike as well. Positioned on the sidewalk in front of the store was Luke Herron-Titus, the co-chair of the southern Illinois chapter of the DSA.

“It’s not about one person, or one group of people. It’s about everyone,” Herron-Titus said. “Unless you are a Wall Street banker, a CEO, a manager at a steel company. If you don’t have access to those outlets of production, you’re working class.”

Dressed for the cold in a bright orange beanie hat, Herron-Titus was the most vocal of the attendees, equipped with a microphone and speaker to amplify the message of the strike. Occasionally, he could be heard leading chants of “Get up, get down, Carbondale’s a union town!”, “Starbucks, Starbucks, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side!”, or “Hey hey, ho ho, low wages have got to go!” among others.

The SIDSA has supported Starbucks’s unionization efforts, as the organization hopes to play a role in furthering the labor movement in the area.

“I think that this strike, and the teachers strike that might be happening in District 95, it’s a good example to the working class all over Carbondale, all over southern Illinois, that you can do this,” Herron-Titus said. “This is possible, and the community’s gonna back you up. The SIDSA is gonna back you up. The YDSA is gonna back you up. The Green Party is gonna back you up. The organized labor movement around here that has built southern Illinois, built the public goods, will back you up. And anything is possible when we’re all together.”

Also joining the strike was Victor Ludwig, who was with the picketers near the drive-thru. Ludwig is a sophomore at SIU, and involved with both the DSA and YDSA.

“We care deeply about making places like this where service workers haven’t been respected, into places where true livings can be made,” Ludwig said.

A native of the Effingham area, Ludwig has experienced living in a place where unions are relatively weak. They see Carbondale as being capable of having a strong foundation with community support, which is the basis of the DSA and YDSA’s efforts.

“There’s a big need for the community to give back to the workers that are doing much, when the companies that these people work for don’t,” they said. “It’s all about bringing everyone together around the working class struggle.”

Like many of their fellow picketers, Ludwig reported a positive impact that the strike had; not only on deterring people from going to Starbucks that day, but on spreading the message of unionizing, and possibly inspiring others to do the same.

“Early in the morning, we saw a lot of people heeding our call to not go through the drive-thru,” they said. “Because for them, they understand waking up at 4 in the morning to go to a job that doesn’t treat them well. You catch that demographic at 7:45, these are all the people that are going towards their daily work, and understanding what that means. When they see a strike, it’s one of those things that a lot of people wish they could be there on the line. They wish that their job had that same opportunity. It’s a shame that many of them don’t. “

Many of the people entering the parking lot during the strike were there for a typical Starbucks order, but some came in simply to voice their support for the picketers. One visitor pulled up to the group and rolled down their window, saying “I’m not gonna buy anything, I just need to say you guys are doing awesome.”

Ludwig said, “We’ve had people trying to pass tips out the window to us. We’ve had people calling and asking how they can come out. We’ve had like 40 donuts given to us over the course of today from people dropping by and just wanting to make sure that we’re fed and happy.”

While the strike was successful on a small scale, the workers recognize that there is still a way to go in securing their rights. Having since returned to work after the single-day demonstration, they still face the task of going against one of the largest corporations in America.

“It’s going to be a long, long process,” Behrens said. “Starbucks isn’t going to make this easy. They never do.”

But these small steps, especially when compounded on a national level, will go far in showing that the workers are prepared to fight for themselves.

“We’re just trying to hit them a little hard, make them see that we’re really trying to make an effort here, and we’re not gonna back down,” Cullen said.

Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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