Merrifield, Springfield Starbucks workers serve up union petitions

Starbucks workers at 3046 Gatehouse Plaza in Merrifield are seeking to unionize (via Google Maps)

The unionization wave sweeping through Starbucks across the country has arrived in Fairfax County.

Workers in Merrifield (3046 Gate House Plaza) and Springfield (7475 Huntsman Boulevard) have filed for union elections, joining a cafe in Leesburg as the first unionizing stores in Northern Virginia, Starbucks Workers United confirmed.

As of yesterday (Tuesday), 140 stores in 27 states have filed for elections since workers in Buffalo, New York, voted to form the union in December.

The Springfield store filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board on Feb. 23, and the Merrifield store went public with its plan to unionize with Workers United last week, earning a shoutout from Providence District Supervisor Dalia Palchik.

Workers officially filed for an election on Friday (March 11) after distributing union cards and sending a letter of intent to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, Merrifield employee and organizing committee member Claudia Sol told FFXnow.

“Ultimately what motivates me towards unionization is the fact that the driving force behind a company’s profit is the worker,” Sol said. “To me, it’s absurd that the company refers to us as partners when we don’t have any say on policies that directly affect us and the work we do.”

First hired by Starbucks in November 2019, Sol says she loves her job, coworkers, and interacting with regular customers, even returning to the store in October after initially quitting in June 2021.

However, she describes the work environment as fast-paced, unpredictable, and both physically and mentally stressful. The COVID-19 pandemic has particularly exacerbated challenges with staffing and health and safety standards, she says.

The amount of staff at the Merrifield store — about 40 employees — is roughly the same as before the pandemic, but even then, it was only just enough people to keep operations going during high-traffic periods, according to employees.

Now, the store is further strained by employees isolating due to Covid exposures and the company’s more involved cleaning procedures, which are difficult to enforce while also providing the prompt, attentive service customers expect, Sol says.

“At one point our store had pretty much half the store, including our manager, isolating due to covid exposure and only had one shift supervisor who was able to work,” Sol said. “Rather than shutting our store down, which seems like the most logical thing to do, that one shift supervisor was then essentially forced to both open and close the store.”

According to Sarah Ford, another Merrifield employee, Starbucks has also reduced the hours store managers are allowed to schedule and rolled back benefits offered early in the pandemic, taking away enhanced food benefits and shortening the amount of paid time off granted for quarantines.

A Starbucks spokesperson denied that the company has cut hours, stating that scheduling can vary based on customer demand.

“That may mean a change in hours available, but to say we’re cutting hours would not be accurate,” she said, noting that this winter’s omicron variant surge affected scheduling nationwide.

The spokesperson says Starbucks is investing $1 billion in employee pay, training, and “in-store experience,” including bringing wages up to at least $15 for all hourly workers. Additional raises offered based on tenure took effect in late January.

Meanwhile, CEO Kevin Johnson’s compensation reportedly increased by 39% to more than $20 million last year.

Starbucks says it is also working to improve staffing with a mobile app for workers to schedule shifts, reconfiguring the bar floor design and equipment, and testing a “Cold Beverage Station” in select stores.

Sol says the main corporate response in Merrifield so far has been a district manager visiting for the first time in months, but Starbucks has been accused of employing union-busting tactics at some stores, including firing employees in Memphis who the company says violated its security and safety policies.

Ford says she hopes a union will lead to cost-of-living raises on an ongoing basis, improved training and safety measures, and more open communication between stores and Starbucks’ corporate leadership.

“We aren’t asking for much and people in this country aren’t asking for much,” Ford said. “People just want to be able to pay their bills, feed their families, and take care of their health.”

The labor movement’s recent surge in momentum reflects a growing awareness of “the inequities in our economy” exposed by the pandemic, says David Broder, president of Service Employees International Union Virginia 512, which represents Fairfax County government employees.

“As a result, working people are organizing for a better future,” Broder said. “Across our community, we see frontline workers — whether they’re Starbucks employees, Fairfax County employees or janitors at George Mason — demand the right to join a union and bargain for a more resilient, stronger, and more just future for us all.”

Photo via Google Maps