Michigan coffee shops are becoming hotbeds for unionization. There’s a common thread between complaints.


Need to Know

  • Multiple Michigan Starbucks locations have voted or will soon vote on unionizing.
  • Some stores have fired union leaders or refused to schedule them. Retaliation is illegal under federal law.
  • Union demands across the state aren’t only about pay; they’re about safety at work and communication. 

UPDATE (8:45 p.m. June 9, 2022)—Five more Michigan Starbucks locations held votes on unionization Thursday. Like Tuesday, four voted to be part of the Workers United union, and one voted against it. Corporate Starbucks stores at 3243 Miller Road, Flint; 2624 Lake Lansing Road, Lansing; 1141 East Grand River Ave., East Lansing; and 17410 Hall Road, Clinton Township voted in favor of unionization. The Starbucks at 11355 S. Saginaw St., Grand Blanc, voted against the union 13-8. A location in Ypsilanti will vote on June 17.

UPDATE (5:45 p.m. June 7, 2022)—Five Ann Arbor Starbucks locations held votes on unionization today, Tuesday. Four voted in favor of unionization—4585 Washtenaw Ave., 300 South Main Street, 120 S. Zeeb Rd., and 222 S. State St. Another Ann Arbor location, 1212 South University, voted 10-16 against unionizing. The four with union wins are organizing through Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

In May, a Grand Rapids store became the first Starbucks to unionize in Michigan. In December 2021, a Buffalo, New York Starbucks became the first corporate-owned location to unionize in the country, and hundreds of locations nationwide have organized since.

ANN ARBOR—Hannah Whitbeck had been working at the same Starbucks location in downtown Ann Arbor for three years when she was fired last month. The firing came as a surprise to many, customers included, but not Whitbeck–she had been trying to start a union for months.

In late February, Whitbeck—a high-ranking shift supervisor at the store—was working alongside a barista and another supervisor, who was in charge that day. Early on, the other supervisor had berated Whitbeck and the barista over a workplace misunderstanding, leaving them both shaken. 

The rest of the day proceeded without incident until 7 p.m., when Whitbeck was scheduled to leave. Whitbeck advised the supervisor in charge that he should take his lunch break in the afternoon, so the barista would have continuous supervision as required. But he declined her recommendation and went outside for lunch at 6:50 p.m., Whitbeck said. With a hard deadline after work, Whitbeck left, and the barista remained on the floor alone, which Starbucks later referred to as a serious workplace safety concern. 

Afterward, Whitbeck filed an incident report with the store manager, documenting the situation.

For the next month, Whitbeck received no follow-up after an initial meeting following the incident–but she did notice that her hours were being reduced. Whitbeck had been open about her involvement with a growing number of Starbucks employees trying to unionize their stores, and when she was certain her hours were being consistently reduced, she filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). 

Then, without warning, she was fired. The store cited the day the barista remained on the floor alone as the reason, though a reprimand didn’t come until a month afterward. 

“I’m not sure how they came to that conclusion or how we came to this timeline, because like I said, no write-ups, no calling off, no coming in late, no conversations—just completely nothing,” Whitbeck said.

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Whitbeck is part of a startling number of Starbucks employees who had been trying to unionize when they were laid off. The Guardian reported that nationally, more than 20 union leaders have been fired from their positions at Starbucks in recent months, after notoriously anti-union chief executive Howard Schultz took control of the corporation for the third time.

In the United States, it’s illegal to interfere with, or fire or penalize an employee for unionization efforts. Union advocates in Michigan claim that doesn’t stop employers from trying to do so. 

After Whitbeck was fired, fellow employees and other service industry employees from the region protested outside the store, on the corner of Main and Liberty in downtown Ann Arbor. Many have publicly backed Whitbeck’s version of events. Whitbeck, they said, was a model employee—never late (except for once, because of a car crash), dependable, and team-oriented.

“I guess that’s what a bad employee looks like,” Whitbeck said.

Starbucks plans wage increases that won’t apply to unionized workers.

Starbucks denied anti-union activities. A spokesperson said to VICE News that Whitbeck had no prior write-ups but that the barista being left alone on the floor was significant enough to fire her without previous strikes.

Now, five downtown Ann Arbor Starbucks locations have votes authorized by the NLRB to decide if they will be unionized. The votes are scheduled for June 7.

On May 1, known as International Workers’ Day, the Michigan AFL-CIO hosted a call with elected officials in state office in support of strikers. Michigan House Democrats have also proposed several packages that advocates say would protect laborers from union-busting.

“When workers take that step to strike, that is a big, big step, not only for them as an employee, but for their families as well,” state Rep. Terry Sabo, a Democrat from Muskegon, said. “As a worker protected by current laws, you have a right to do that. You have a right to bargain for your contract, for your wages and benefits and safe working conditions.”

As the pandemic highlighted the efforts of “essential workers,” more front-line service industry people have argued their pay should reflect the service they provide.

The coffee shop revolution isn’t confined to downtown Ann Arbor. A Grand Rapids Starbucks recently became the first branch to successfully unionize, with a 15-3 vote. In sum, 12 Michigan Starbucks locations are currently trying to unionize. 

Unionization has dripped down to metro Detroit, too, where the movement has become known as Comrades in Coffee.

Employees of Great Lakes Coffee went on strike in February at the Midtown location in Detroit, followed by those at the Rivertown Market location inside of a new neighborhood Meijer store. Several nearby stores have pulled the brand’s coffee off the shelves.

“I see a lot of the disrespect from the miscommunication and the silence,” said Cassidy Villanos, a former barista at Great Lakes Coffee for three years.

Strikes at Great Lakes Coffee stem from health concerns – workers at the flagship location say a large number of people were exposed to COVID-19 because of unsafe working conditions. After unsuccessful attempts to improve their working conditions, they grew frustrated with what they describe as a disconnect with management.

Now backed by UNITE HERE Local 24, the striking employees are demanding a $15 minimum wage, protective equipment, and predictable scheduling.

“It’s disheartening when any group of workers… comes to us and tells us that their concerns have fallen on deaf ears,” Nia Winston, President of Local 24, said.

COVID-19 and high inflation have accelerated the push toward organized labor in Michigan, labor archivist Daniel Golodner said in an interview with The ‘Gander last fall. Moreover, Golodner said there’s been the recognition of the “invisible worker.” The pandemic has shuffled how people view work, and it has galvanized union movements across the country. When one store unionizes, it can inspire others in a similar position to do the same. 

“The community is coming out and talking to unions, and unions are coming out and talking to communities,” Golodner said. “This has been going on for a while, but it’s stronger now.”

Cassidy Villanos, the former barista at Great Lakes Coffee, said that in a state with a proud labor history, unionizers have looked to movements of the past for inspiration about what they should do today.

On May 26, the Great Lakes Coffee strike officially reached day 100. The flagship Midtown branch has permanently closed, workers learned during a 10-day hearing with the NLRB. That news, confirmed by the Detroit Free Press, was their first word that the location won’t reopen following the strikes. 

Employees say the store closed as retaliation against strikers, while store owners claimed they couldn’t afford strikers’ demand. But unionizers say that the closure won’t dissuade them from pursuing unionization at other Great Lakes Coffee locations, which number four more in Michigan and one in Key West.

“These are the sort of jobs that are essential in the modern US economy that is so based in the service industry,” said Mitchell Bonga, a former service industry employee and now a law student who came out to support the strikers in February. “Having a union in that sort of space is such a critical thing.”

In Ann Arbor, Whitbeck remains without work as she awaits a resolution on the hearing. She misses working at her downtown location, she said, and she misses the customers and people she works alongside.

“These people are my family,” Whitbeck said.