RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Workers at five Starbucks stores in Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield are currently voting on whether to unionize, amidst a wave of unionization in the national coffee chain.

J. Fletcher, a shift supervisor and union organizer at the Huguenot Village Starbucks, said before this year, unionizing was unimaginable. That changed when a store in Buffalo, New York voted to unionize last year, becoming the first unionized Starbucks in the United States.

“It had been a joke for awhile amongst our baristas and partners,” he said. “But then Buffalo actually went out and did it.”

Fletcher has worked on and off at Starbucks since 2015, and has been in his current position for three and a half years.

Starbucks Midlo/forest Hill
The Starbucks on Midlothian Turnpike (Left) and Forest Hill (Right) were the first in the Richmond area where workers filed a petition to hold a union election. (Photo: Tyler Thrasher/WRIC)

Fletcher said he heard from friends at the Westchester Commons Starbucks that they were planning to announce a union petition, and they in turn put him in contact with organizers at Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) which has coordinated the national unionization campaign.

“We just kind of hit the ground running. We had union cards signed within the next week after that,” Fletcher said.

The Response

Fletcher said that soon after his store announced their intent to unionize in February, Starbucks cut hours across the board.

“We have lost a lot of hours, shift hours for partners, and that’s been very frustrating,” he said. “They’re telling us that the numbers don’t support the labor but we’re still super busy.”

A spokesperson for Starbucks told 8News that hours might have been cut at the store, but denied that it was part of a “blanket approach,” adding that “hours may reduce after the holiday rush.”

Fletcher said business hasn’t dropped at his store – but staffing cuts mean they’ve had to close online ordering and the cafe itself, reducing the store to only drive-through orders.

“When that happens you have to close certain channels … so you’re only doing drive-through order, and you’re doing less business,” he said.

One of Starbucks’ strategies, in Richmond and in other cities, has been to petition for a combined regional election. That means every store in a region – including those that never filed a petition to unionize – would vote at once in a winner-take-all vote.

According to the Starbucks Spokesperson, the idea is that stores across a region “operate as one cohesive unit,” so all workers in a region should get a collective vote.

The spokesperson added that workers at regional stores could be impacted by unionization in neighboring areas, but that it wouldn’t be possible to say what those impacts could be.

“Those impacts would be determined during the collective bargaining process,” they said.

SBWU has opposed the move to consolidate cases, and Fletcher argued it was a way for the company to “stack the vote” against organizers by including workers from other stores who had no interest in unionizing.

“Howard Schulz said it himself in his book, Onward – he talks about how every single Starbucks is its own store,” Fletcher said. “It has its own culture, it has its own partners, it has its own customers – its own design, even.”

The National Labor Relations Board has broadly sided with SBWU on the matter of consolidation, and ruled ahead of Richmond’s elections that there was no reason to consolidate any of the elections at the five Richmond-area stores.

Ballots were mailed to workers at the five stores on March 29, and the votes will be counted at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) office in Baltimore on April 19.