CYPRESS PARK — Jay Leemore traveled more than 130 miles from the Coachella Valley to Cypress Park to picket outside of Starbucks. 

Lemoore, an employee of a Starbucks in Indio, California, spoke at a July 27 union rally in front of the Cypress Park Starbucks in Northeast Los Angeles where he urged unionization, while denouncing the hardships faced by Starbucks employees.

“We have partners going into homelessness. We are feeling the burnout,” said Lemoore. “Last October we unionized. We demanded better benefits at Starbucks.”

The rally was part of a nationwide effort spearheaded by Workers United, a labor union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), to unionize Starbucks workers. This summer Workers United has mounted a bus tour of various Starbucks locations across the country, demanding higher wages, and better protections from overwork, as part of what’s being called LA’s “hot labor summer” – Cypress Park Starbucks was the first location on their tour.  

The walkout marked the first time in Los Angeles striking hotel workers and employees at fast food chains joined in solidarity.

Starbucks in LA County

Currently, there are five unionized Starbucks stores in Los Angeles County, with three in LA city, one in Long Beach and another in Lakewood. In total, there are 335 stores in 38 states and the District of Columbia that voted to join the union, according to Workers United. 

Most baristas in Los Angeles earn $16.78 per hour, the city’s minimum wage that went into effect on July 1, according to union organizers. Earning average wages of $17.50 an hour across the nation, Starbucks employees have to get help from family or friends to make rent in an increasingly unaffordable state, and wrestle with steeper workloads since businesses reopened following mandated shutdowns due to Covid.

The Workers United movement started in Buffalo, N.Y. in December 2021, and has as one of its major demands an increase in base wage to $20 per hour for baristas, the employees preparing an eclectic and growing list of coffee brews, and to $25.40 for shift supervisors like Veronica Gonzalez, a shift supervisor at the Cypress Park location.

Gonzalez says there has been a sharp rise in workload since Covid erupted, resulting in more cars at its drive-thru, and a spike in foot customers as infections receded and are slightly bouncing back. 

Gonzalez, who has been employed five years there, said the lack of staff to cover busy shifts and cumulative stress has turned the job from being challenging to unbearable. 

“They want faster productivity and more money for the bosses,” said Gonzalez.

Both Starbucks employees joined the first stopover of a union tour in Southern California in support of collective bargaining for 32 employees at the Northeast Los Angeles location on July 27, as part of nationwide movement christened “The Union is Calling.”

“Each worker has to do the job of three people,” said Gonzalez while climbing into the bed of a truck provided by the Los Angeles County Labor Federation, with the Starbucks Workers United bus that carried unionized members from other industries parked behind her.

At the raucous rally, protesters braved sweltering temperatures reaching 95 degrees  and carried cardboards reading “The union is bussin’,” with the iconic Starbucks mermaid image on the bus’ boarding door in the backdrop. 

“We are consistently put in stressful conditions. We are overworked and pushed aside in the name of corporate profits,” said an irate Gonzalez amid chants of “When we fight, we win,” and “This is what democracy looks like.” 

Workers United vowed to fight for medical coverage paid in full with co-pays capped at $10, benefits for all eligible staff after 30 days of being hired, better mental health services and reinstatement of transgender benefits to pair them with those offered before Oct. 1, 2022. 

Additional petitions at the bargaining table are to raise wages 5% a year for everyone, including special increases in high-cost areas, factor in years of experience for current and new partners, and approve a raise on salaries to reward longevity. 

In response, a spokesperson from Starbucks corporate said the company respects, “… the right of all partners to make their own decisions about union representation.” 

The representative added that Starbucks invested more than $1.4 billion last year to improve the experience in stores and for its partners, and part of that money went to support full and part time partners, with wages ranging from $15 to $23 per hour.

“After arriving at each session, Workers United representatives refused to discuss proposals or bargain without unilateral preconditions,” said the spokesperson. “Workers United claims that our bargaining committee walked out of sessions after ‘just minutes,’ but they overlooked the fact our team remained on-site for the duration of each bargaining session ready to begin in-person contract negotiations, according to [National Labor Relations Board] precedent.” 

Melissa Palominos, the strategic campaign specialist for Western States with the Service Employee International Union, said Starbucks “pretends to live in an alternate universe,” and faces a trail in September due to draconian measures that make it hard for Workers United to choose its own negotiators in 24 states. 

‘When it finally and belatedly responded, Starbucks imposed illegal conditions on bargaining intended to prevent the union from designating members of its own bargaining teams,” said Palominos in an email. “In the very few places that Starbucks has actually sat down to bargain over the past year, workers have made comprehensive proposals covering all aspects of our working conditions.”

She said the company has not accepted a “a single proposal,” has refused to offer a counterproposal, and court decisions keep mounting for its practices to illegaly fire and discriminate employees who joined and support the union.

“This is not bargaining in good faith,” Palominos underscored. 

Solidarity from other workers and a state senator

Vicenta Diaz, an employee at McDonald’s on Third Street in East Los Angeles who was there to support Starbucks workers, told the picketers her employer shrank her job schedule from 30 to 13 hours a week in retaliation for becoming a member of the labor campaign known as “Fight for $15,” already on its 11th anniversary. 

Fast food organizers like Diaz said their campaign’s moniker bears a time lag, and now has turned into “Fight for $20.”

“For the following two weeks, that was an example of the tactics they use to silence us and scare us,” said Diaz standing on the truck’s bed. “I’m not scared, and they will not silence us.”

Accompanied by fellow co-workers Daniela Guerrero, Elizabeth Juarez and Sebastian Marek, Diaz said her boss reinstated the missing hours and started a more respectful labor relationship after the union took on her case. 

California Democratic Sen. Maria Elena Durazo told supporters Starbucks created the barista title to trick staff into thinking they had a fancy job when in reality it was a new way to cheat them out of decent wages and benefits. 

“They used to say unions were for old people. We will stand in solidarity. All workers need unions,” Durazo said.