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What's at stake?

Amidst a national movement by many Starbucks workers to unionize the retail chain, this would be the first in the Central Valley to follow the trend.

Fresno Starbucks workers fighting to unionize and labor advocates say they hope to start a wave of unionization among local Starbucks stores and beyond.

“This is going to be the start of a chain reaction in our area — or at least I hope it is,” Benjamin Takemoto, a shift supervisor at the Starbucks at 7010 N. Marks Ave., said during an inte​rview last week with The Fresno Bee/Fresnoland. Takemoto authored an open letter released Apr. 21 announcing the shop’s intent to unionize.

If their move is successful, the Marks and Herndon store would be the first unionized Starbucks in the Central Valley. A Starbucks store in Santa Cruz became the first in California to vote to unionize last Wednesday.

“It’s historical” that Fresno will be the fifth Starbucks store in California to vote on a union, following two stores in Santa Cruz and two in Southern California, Maria Rivera, regional manager of Workers United, told The Bee/Fresnoland last week.

Around two dozen Starbucks coffee shops in California have contacted Workers United asking for union representation as part of a growing movement across California and the nation.

The organizing effort comes asFresno-area Starbucks shops have had their fair share of challenges in recent months.

InNovember, a sword fight broke out at the Starbucks location on Herndon and Marks, sending one person to a local hospital for surgery. A number of Fresno Starbucks stores were closed on and off in late 2021 through early 2022 due to staffing issues and COVID-19.

And in 2018, a transgender woman and Starbucks employee sued the company for discrimination and harassment, alleging the manager at the northwest Fresno store on Milburn and Herndon began to treat her negatively after she told him she was starting the process of transitioning.

Between 20 and 30 community members, students, and representatives from Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Central Labor Council gathered on Thursday to support the Starbucks workers at the Marks and Herndon location who want to unionize. Takemoto said he hopes Thursday’s rally helped garner community support for the local baristas.

“We’re doing what we feel is right for us. We support you every day as best as we can by getting your daily coffee, your daily caffeine fix,” said Takemoto. “So we’d love for that support to be shown back to us.”

Ballots for the union vote will be mailed out at the end of the month, and a vote is expected to follow shortly after.

Starbucks customers, state labor voices echo support

In his two and a half years at the Herndon and Marks location and over eight years with the company, Takemoto said he has witnessed employees experiencing discrimination, unequal treatment, under-staffing and burnout.

A Starbucks spokesperson responded to Takemoto’s allegations in an email statement to The Bee/Fresnoland on Tuesday, saying the company, “strive(s) to create an inclusive, safe workplace environment that is aligned with our Mission and Values.”

Takemoto said he hopes a union would provide a “voice” for partners — the term Starbucks uses for its employees — as well as better pay andpersonal and professional development for staff.

Takemoto said that while there has been “quite a bit” of positive feedback from customers regarding the intent to unionize announcement, he received at least one “strongly worded letter” from a customer opposed to it.

Representatives for the state’s top labor organizations also shared their support for Fresno’s Starbucks workers.

“The entire California labor movement is proud to support Fresno Starbucks partners fighting for a union to improve their workplace,” Lorena Gonzalez, incoming chief officer of the California Labor Federation, wrote in an email statement to The Bee/Fresnoland. “When workers join a union, they have a seat at the table to negotiate a fair deal on pay, health care, safety, and many other critical workplace issues.”

Gonzalez also had strong words for Starbucks leadership. Last week, a regional director for the NLRB petitioned the U.S. District Court to reinstate seven former Starbucks employees in Memphis, Tenn., after they were fired for exercising their rights to form a union, one of the latest reported allegations of retaliation against Starbucks workers.

“We call on Starbucks to immediately stop its aggressive union-busting campaign and recognize baristas’ desire to stand together,” Gonzalez said.

In response to Gonzalez’s statement, a Starbucks spokesperson said the company is “listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country.”

​“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,” the spokesperson said in an email Monday. “We respect our partners’ right to organize and are committed to following the NLRB process.”

Will more Fresno Starbucks join the unionization wave?

A growing body of research shows a relationship between the decline of unions and the rise of economic inequality.

A 2018 study from Princeton University found that the erosion of labor unions in the United States contributed to around 10% of the widening gap between rich and poor.

Nationwide, only 2.1% of fast food and counter workers belong to a union, according to a 2021 analysis of Current Population Survey census data. The industry has widely been considered among the most difficult to organize due to turnover, inexperience and intimidation.

Ana Padilla, executive director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center, said fast food and food service workers — such as those at Fresno’s Starbucks — play an important role in the labor movement.

“The public has long subsidized low-wage business models with public benefits — and there is no greater case than the food services industry,” Padilla said in a statement to The Bee/Fresnoland.

Labor researchers say more unionization of food service workers could have huge implications for California’s Central Valley, which has some of the highest rates of concentrated poverty in the country. Communities with high union density have greater levels of inter-generational economic mobility, even for children of nonunion workers, according to a report by the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

“The Fight for $15 movement emerged from this industry and won greater wages for workers than any labor movement in U.S. history,” said Padilla. The Fight for $15 movement calls for a national minimum wage of $15 an hour.

On Tuesday, a survey by the Service Employees International Union “Fight for $15” campaign found that nearly 60% of fast food workers were victims of multiple forms of wage theft.

The rally and move to unionize a Fresno Starbucks shop, Padilla said, is a reminder that “fast food workers are not done fighting for their rights.”

Rivera, of Workers United, agrees. She said she hopes Thursday’s rally marks the start of a “great awakening” for workers in Fresno. She wants workers to think, “‘Sí, se puede,’ we can do this.”

Takemoto said he encourages other local Starbucks “partners” interested in forming unions to reach out to him or Workers United for more information.

“Jump in headfirst and join us,” he said.

At least one other Starbucks in Fresno is planning to organize, said Rivera, and will make their announcement in the near future.

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.