Colorado Starbucks workers join nationwide strike as contract negotiations drag on

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A union sign outside a Starbucks store on Columbine Street in Denver’s Cherry Creek shopping area on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, where employees were on strike as part of a nationwide action against the coffee retailer.

At least three Starbucks locations in Colorado shut down Wednesday after workers went on strike to protest stalled contract negotiations with the company. 

The walkout affected a store in Denver, a pair of stores in the suburbs of Westminster and Superior, and one in Colorado Springs. It marks the largest protest effort to date from the Workers United union, which represents baristas at nine locations in the state. 

One impacted location in Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood remained open, but the company is currently staffing that store with non-union workers from nearby locations. 

The demonstrations are part of a nationwide strike that included thousands of other Starbucks workers. Workers in Colorado said they were frustrated at a lack of progress in securing their first contract.

“It’s been almost a year and this is taking way too long,” said Ashyah Seacrest, a Starbucks barista at 250 Columbine St. in Denver, where fill-in workers were behind the counter Wednesday. 

Seacrest and a group of fellow baristas spent Wednesday morning standing outside of their store, asking customers to consider getting their coffee elsewhere. Most customers crossed the picket line. 

“That’s disappointing,” she said. 

More than 100 stores across the country participated, according to the union, Starbucks Workers United. Workers timed the strike to take place ahead of the company’s annual shareholders meeting on Thursday.

Former CEO Howard Shultz is also expected to testify in front of the U.S. Senate next week about the company’s multiple federal labor law violations against union organizers.

Non-union Starbucks locations operated as normal Wednesday according to a company statement. 

"Rather than publicizing rallies, we encourage Workers United to live up to their obligations by responding to our proposed sessions and meeting us in-person to move the good faith bargaining process forward,” the company said. 

Tensions between the union and company have boiled over in recent months due to delays in the bargaining process. Each side blames the other for dragging out talks. 

Negotiations between a unionized store in Colorado Springs and the company were set to begin last October, but those plans were called off when the company abruptly closed the location.

Starbucks' Cherry Creek shop was the first in the state to secure an in-person bargaining session with the company. Representatives from both sides met in person last December, but negotiations lasted less than 10 minutes because of a disagreement over the use of a Zoom video call during the meeting. 

Starbucks representatives said hybrid meetings are against federal bargaining rules, and they have filed multiple unfair labor practice charges over the Zoom dispute. Meanwhile, the union has filed similar process-related complaints against the company. 

No other meetings have been put on the calendar, according to Starbucks Workers United. 

“Partners across the nation have been pushed to strike and to unionize as a result of

corporate negligence and near-downright contempt for partners when we ask for the bare minimum,” said a statement from a Colorado organizing committee for the union. 

The union and the National Labor Relations Board have also accused the company of breaking federal laws around workers’ rights, including firing pro-union workers in Colorado. Court proceedings are underway in a case involving alleged illegal terminations at three stores in Denver and Colorado Springs.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Striking Starbucks employee Nataly Marquez hands a leaflet to a customer outside a Starbucks store on Columbine Street in Denver's Cherry Creek shopping area on Wednesday, March 18, 2023, where she and other employees were on strike as part of a nationwide action against the coffee retailer.

Last month, a federal judge ruled in favor of workers at another union store in Denver. The company must now reinstate the worker and pay back pay. 

The company has called the allegations unfounded and appealed most decisions. 

“Starbucks trains managers that no partner will be disciplined for engaging in lawful union activity and that there will be no tolerance for any unlawful anti-union behavior,” the company said in a statement. 

Labor experts say it’s not a surprise that the contract bargaining process has dragged on for so long. 

It typically takes new unions at least a year to get their first contracts, said James Walsh, a political science professor at the University of Colorado Denver, who specializes in labor history. 

“Starbucks is engaging in a strategy that's pretty typical in this country,” he said. “When workers win the right to organize, the employers typically stonewall the negotiations or pretend to negotiate and drag it out.”

“The fear Starbucks has right now is that if there's one example out there of success, other stores will follow that,” Walsh added. “So they wanna make sure there isn't any.” 

Workers at Colorado stores say the delays have hurt morale, and many organizers have either been laid off or left the company. 

“Never in a million years did I think it’d take this long,” said Bradley Kurtz, a barista at Starbucks’ Academy and Flintridge store in Colorado Springs. “But the movement is still there. We’re taking baby steps.” 

Kurtz’ store’s union election is still undecided after an election last year ended in a tie. Managers have cracked down in the time since then. 

“A lot of people have lost hours,” Kurtz said. “They aren’t able to work longer shifts. There are only a few of us that have been able to hang on.” 

Workers originally began organizing to demand more structured work schedules and better pay, among other improvements. Since December 2021, at least 290 stores across the country have joined Starbucks Workers United. 

Starbucks has responded by upping pay and benefits for workers at non-union stores. Last year, the company’s average starting raise for a barista rose to $17.50 an hour.

It also loosened rules around credit card tipping, which is something that union workers are pushing for in their first contract, said Seacrest, the Cherry Creek barista. 

“It’s crazy that the stores that fought for those things are the ones losing out,” Seacrest said. “We are the ones who pressed for that change. But we have to lose a little bit to gain a lot.” 

The strike is expected to last one day and affected stores should operate as normal Thursday, according to the union.