Unionizing Starbucks: ‘I’ve got nothing to lose but I’ve got everything to gain.’

Tyler Keeling, Starbucks Union Organizer

A barista talks about why he is part of the nationwide effort to unionize Starbucks workers.

By Kelly Candaele, Capital & Main

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.

Since December of last year, over 6,000 workers in 230 Starbucks stores have organized themselves into a union. The Starbucks unionizing drive is a bright spot for a labor movement that has been in a steep decline since the 1950s, battered by anti-labor corporations, crippling labor laws and lack of organizing zeal by labor unions themselves. California is a center of the new effort, with 16 stores throughout the state voting for union representation.

Tyler Keeling was one of those leading the successful effort at a Starbucks store in Lakewood. Like most of the other Starbucks organizers, he is young — 26 — idealistic and determined to fight a corporation that has branded itself as progressive and open-minded. The reality is that these young union advocates have faced strident opposition from Starbucks executives and attempts to intimidate pro-union employees.

Recently, workers at Keeling’s store even went on an unfair labor practice strike for a day over allegations that Starbucks is withholding new benefits from unionized stores that were announced by the company on May 3. Even though the first Starbucks store voted to unionize on Dec. 9, 2021, there is still not one union contract that has been negotiated.

Keeling, who will speak Monday at the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Labor Coalition Labor Day Parade, spoke to Capital & Main from his home in Long Beach about his life and what the workers at Starbucks want to achieve.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Question: You’re going to be sitting across the negotiating table from a Starbucks lawyer making $1,000 an hour. Does that make you nervous?

Tyler Keeling: I don’t have a reason to be. The worst thing that can happen to me has already happened.

I don’t have a stable income, so I don’t have too much to lose, right? I’m not afraid of these people who have this rich education. I’ve got nothing to lose but I’ve got everything to gain. A fancy education doesn’t mean anything where I come from. People from the high desert like me who survived everything we’ve survived don’t have a reason to be scared of a lawyer from a huge corporation.

We have workers from different backgrounds and from different places like Compton who know what it’s like to come from an underserved community. We have LGBT co-workers who know what it is like to have little or no economic upward mobility. We are entry level workers but what we do is skilled labor. But we’re not getting compensated for skilled labor. We are scraping the bottom of the barrel so we have everything to gain.

“We work hard to make profits for Starbucks, and they make so much money that they spend on everything but investing in us.”

So, this first contract will be critical because Starbucks will want to give as little as possible, to show other nonunion stores that unionization is not worth the trouble. And you need to get something significant to show workers at those other stores what is possible with a union.

That is definitely correct. First off, having a good contract is necessary for us to make enough money to provide for what we need: our rent and food and so on. But also a contract is going to be a signal for other stores to look at where they can see why unionizing is important. We deserve a good contract because we work hard to make profits for Starbucks, and they make so much money that they spend on everything but investing in us.

So it’s crucial for Starbucks to stop you from obtaining anything significant through negotiations.

They definitely are trying but they are not going to succeed. I currently make $18 an hour, which ends up being about $1,300 a month. I barely survive. My share of the rent is close to $1,200 a month, not including utilities or groceries or insurance for my car. I am using what savings I have left, and using credit cards when I have to. It’s not feasible when you think that what I make is just over minimum wage. Many of my fellow workers are in the same situation.

Our store makes $60,000 a week sometimes. Our manager often posts the store metrics in the back office for everyone to see in order to inspire us to do better. But it also made everyone aware of what the company was making. It’s a do or die situation for us. We don’t have another choice. That’s a big part of why I organize because I don’t want anyone else to have to live like that either — living paycheck to paycheck.

When did you start organizing your store?

I had my first conversation about unionization the day after the Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, won their election in early December. I started going around to everybody that I worked with and talked to everyone. I told them why unions were good and what they could do for workers. Sometimes I talked to people for hours. The other workers wanted to talk about it and wondered what was going to happen if they unionized. A lot of people knew they could trust me and I would be honest and real with them. There was fear at first, but even if they were scared they knew they could trust me and I wouldn’t let them down. We would talk at their house, outside the store on breaks and on the phone through Facetime.

I had no other connections across the country at this time. The first person I did meet from outside of California was Nikki Taylor from a Memphis, Tennessee, store, one of the “Memphis Seven” who were all fired for organizing in February. They are legendary. Their firing made headlines everywhere. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has had them reinstated to the jobs as of a week or two ago. Nikki and I became friends and we talked a lot about organizing.

Then I met others from the Los Angeles area who were also organizing. We worked closely with Josie Serrano from the Long Beach store at Seventh and Redondo and we started doing things together and coordinating our activities. We learned how to be community organizers together. We started organizing our stores side by side since February. We really started moving things forward in early February of this year and we filed our petition for an election on March 7. Our vote was on May 13, and that’s when we won 24 to 1.

What were the primary issues for you and your co-workers?

The kinds of things that drove us to organize were wages, inconsistent scheduling, lack of accountability and transparency from management in the workplace, and no true workplace protections from being unfairly fired or for being unfairly harassed. There were many reasons. We’re sitting here with historic inflation and we have been suffering and watching everything get more expensive. It was becoming harder to live. It was time to do something about that for ourselves.

Did you have experience with unions before this?

Not really? I knew a little bit, and some key points of labor history. It is something I’ve become much more interested in. I’ve started to read and study more about it. When I was 15 or 16, I started reading about topics of social justice, especially about marginalized people fighting for equal rights, immigrant rights, gay rights. With that came the history of what workers had done and the struggles they had. All of these fights became a single entity to me. I read reports that were posted online, and I talked to a lot of people who knew more than I did. It was a community effort where everybody was talking about these fights for justice together in whatever space that was available — maybe the internet, maybe at a party. It became a form of community teaching. It’s bigger than self-taught. It’s other people teaching me and me teaching other people. It’s holding each other accountable to learn as much as we can and to share what we know.

Did you go to college?

After I graduated high school, I lived on a friend’s couch in El Monte. I worked at an assisted living care job in Whittier but the hours were inconsistent. I made about $200 every two weeks. It was bad. I went to Citrus College in Azusa for a year, but then moved to Olympia, Washington, and started working at Starbucks there for $13 an hour as a barista in 2016.

In June of 2017 I moved again, to New Jersey, and worked at another Starbucks but took a pay cut to $10 an hour. I was promoted to supervisor but still only making $12 an hour. Moving from place to place I had no stability whatsoever. I moved back to California in 2018 and started working at a Starbucks in Glendora and moved to the Lakewood store in 2019.

But it was something about labor history that got you excited.

I come from a poor background, and labor history inherently ties into poverty. The workers movement is about fighting poverty and fighting to make things better for workers. That rings true with almost anybody who comes from a background of poverty and it certainly rang true for me.

Tell me more about your background, where you grew up.

My mom raised me and my two siblings in Apple Valley in the high desert right off the 15 Freeway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. We were always in poverty. We faced homelessness most of the time. My mother struggled with amphetamine addiction most of her adult life but sobered up a few years before passing away due to cervical cancer when I was 15. She never had stable work so I never thought about what it would mean to have a career. My father shod horses but he was not in my life as my parents were divorced when I was a year old.

When I say I come from nothing I mean that. There was no economic opportunity in Apple Valley. It’s an economically abandoned area, which causes many people to fall into addiction. I’ve struggled throughout my entire life. I’ve never had any true form of stability. The closest things to stability I’ve had was my social circle, my best friends, my partner, my co-workers. When my mom died my grandparents took me and my siblings in.

When did you start to understand there were economic classes in the United States?

I became very aware of economic classes at age 10 or 11. I remember asking my mom, “Are we poor?” I could see that she was sad that I asked that question. Despite her struggle with addiction, my mom and I had a good relationship.

In the desert a lot of people are poor, but I did feel judged in many ways. In middle school I began to realize some stark differences between families. Other kids my age had cell phones and it seemed like a normal thing. I wanted a cell phone too, but there was no way we would ever be able to afford one. I never got new clothes for school so class became very easy to recognize.

So now that you have a union what are the next steps?

We need to sit down and negotiate a contract for our store with Starbucks and, so far, they have been stalling. We submitted our request many weeks ago.

It seems like this effort does not have outside professional union staff making all the decisions about strategy and approach.

I can’t stress enough about the fact that this movement is worker led. We are the union, and we are not sitting around doing nothing and waiting for something to happen. We’re all active and we’re all interconnected across the country and we are standing together. We know our rights, and we know what Starbucks is doing. And there’s a lot to be said about us being the ones to drive this. In our stores we are the ones who have educated each other, and Starbucks can’t destroy that. It’s impossible. We have a force that is powerful. Workers United staff guide us — the union that we are affiliated with — but ultimately, we have been empowered to make our own decisions.

How is it that Starbucks extracts more and more profit in the stores?

Our workload doesn’t lessen but what does lessen is the labor that is allotted in our stores. Some days we might have six people on the floor, catching all this work. At other times, it will be four. They are trying to minimize the money they spend on labor in order to maximize the amount of profit they get out of any given day. And we’re expected to do those numbers no matter how many people we have on the floor. They are raising prices all the time without adjusting anything for us in terms of our income. It’s very clear what they’re doing.

I was at a store recently in Malibu and honestly it looked like a factory or like that “I Love Lucy” episode where Lucille Ball is trying to keep the chocolates from falling on the floor from the conveyor belt.

We are working in what is called a “channel production” process where we are all planted at certain spots essentially repeating the same movements until we are moved to a different spot. For instance, one channel is producing food or another will be producing beverages at a single workstation. There are very strict routines that you follow and you repeat them your entire shift. Starbucks put a lot of money and research into developing those processes, and those are the process standards that our jobs exist by. Step by step, every single day, and these steps are laid out in training.

It seems highly regimented and reminds me of factory engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, who developed this worker efficiency method in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Yes, there is even a routine for steaming milk that you must follow precisely. There’s an order for how you pull your shots of espresso and how to get syrup into drinks. When you stop working on one beverage you start another beverage. It’s very detail oriented. It’s not yet about how you should move your hands in certain ways but it would not surprise me if that is coming. There are expectations that we must produce a given number of items in a 30-minute period. People definitely get hurt all the time. Falling, tripping, they get burned. And those time demands are extremely hard to meet but some days we do.

I’ve heard the drive-throughs are even more demanding.

Yes, there are goals they set to measure our success. Monday through Friday we’re expected to have everything prepared at the window for a customer including food and payment processing and beverage in hand within 45 seconds.

And you receive warnings or demerits if these standards are not met?

I’ve seen it happen. “Underperforming” people are met with and encouraged to get to that point of meeting and exceeding the standards set for all of us. It can start off as a verbal warning, and then it could escalate all the way to a performance review of your job. The onus is always put on the worker instead of the process itself.

Starbucks has this reputation as being this groovy, enlightened, progressive company.  They hire gay people, they let you color your hair purple or put a ring in your nose. So what’s beneath the image?

It’s extremely superficial. They claim inclusiveness, and I started in this company because I wanted somewhere I could work that accepted gay people, especially coming from a small, conservative town. Gay culture is not necessarily part of the mainstream. And I remember going to work at Starbucks and my store manager at the time simply not being OK with how I acted. I said and acted in ways that were very much informed by the fact that I was gay. It was glaringly obvious. Starbucks claims to love gay people but it’s only the acceptable kind of gay or the boxed in kind of gay. And they simply don’t defend you when you face homophobia in the workplace. Many times I’ve been blamed for a customer’s homophobic comments towards me.

Where do you want to be in 10 years? What are your future aspirations?

I want to be firmly planted in the world of labor and helping workers organize for the rest of my life. For me what I’m doing feels right and natural. Being an organizer means to learn to establish trust and make connections with people. It means to help people take back power in the workplace and to build community, education and solidarity. When I zoom out and think about this moment it blows my mind what we’ve been able to do. When I zoom in on myself it feels natural and it feels like I’m exactly where I should be. But I’m not going anywhere until we have a contract.

Copyright 2022 Capital & Main

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