Starbucks employees in Biddeford have notified the company of their intent to unionize, joining a growing push to organize across the country.

The Biddeford store is the first in the state to take the initial step to join Starbucks Workers United. Maine is now the 35th state to have a store file a petition for election, the union said. And the Biddeford Starbucks joins a growing number of Maine workplaces where workers are organizing to advocate for fair wages and better working conditions.

Following successful union votes at two Starbucks stores in the Buffalo, New York, area in December, workers have filed for a union election at more than 260 of the company’s 9,000 stores across the country. The union has prevailed at the vast majority of stores that have voted to join Starbucks Workers United. To win, a union must receive the backing of more than half of the workers who vote.

Elsewhere in New England, the union has won votes at a half-dozen stores in Massachusetts, according to a tracker by Law360. A petition also has been filed by the Burlington, Vermont, store and a vote is pending.

In a letter to Starbucks President and CEO Howard Schultz, the Biddeford employees said they are “acting with courage, challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other,” in accordance with the company’s mission and values.

“Our efforts to unionize come from a love of our stores and our communities,” they wrote.

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The employees outlined how they believe the company has “fundamentally shifted its focus” and placed unrealistic expectations on employees during the pandemic. They said they were forced to come to work sick and had little support from management to protect themselves from COVID-19. Many employees have picked up second jobs because their pay fails to compete with the rising cost of living, they wrote.

“We have been overworked, underpaid, and burnt out to the core. We are tired,” they wrote. “We’ve continued to make every moment mean something, even though our hours have been cut drastically, our income threatened and our benefits taken away.”

The letter was signed by employees Ash Macomber, Preslee Jennings, Chloe Hoecker, Chloe Corral, Ashley Tomah, Stephanie Elliot and “others who wish to remain anonymous.” A representative for Starbucks Workers United said a vote hasn’t been scheduled yet and that none of the employees was available for interviews Friday.

“We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country,” a Starbucks spokesperson said via email Friday. “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed. We respect our partner’s right to organize and are committed to following the (National Labor Relations Board) process.”

Starbucks, based in Seattle, has criticized efforts to unionize. Last July, the National Labor Relations Board found that the company unlawfully retaliated against two Philadelphia baristas involved with organizing. The board’s review showed that Starbucks closely monitored their public social media activity, attempted to gauge employees’ support for the organizing efforts, and unlawfully spied on protected conversations between one of the baristas and other employees.

MORE MAINERS JOINING UNIONS

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Andy O’Brien, communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO, called the decision to organize in Biddeford “an exciting development not just for Starbucks workers, but all workers in Maine.”

“Hardworking Starbucks employees deserve the right to bargain to improve their wages and benefits and have a seat at the table in management decisions,” O’Brien said. “Union members stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Biddeford, and we have their backs. It’s time for Starbucks to halt its union-busting tactics and accept that they can’t stop a movement.”

The Biddeford Starbucks employees join a growing group of workers across various industries in Maine who are forming unions.

In the past two years, Maine AFL-CIO has been seen an uptick in the number of workers reaching out for advice and assistance with forming unions. In the past year, workers at Maine Medical Center, the Bangor Daily News, the Portland Museum of Art, Bates College, Waterville KVCAP, Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Transit and the Kittery Water District have voted to unionize.

“A combination of the pandemic, a tight labor market and massive economic inequality have helped create conditions to spark this movement for better pay and workers’ rights,” O’Brien said. “Maine workers have realized the true value of their labor as essential workers during the pandemic, and they’re becoming more emboldened to take action in the workplace to improve their wages and working conditions.”

He said the push to unionize in workplaces is “a youth-driven movement to revive the American Dream” and cited a Gallup poll that shows support for unions is the highest it has been since 1965, with 71 percent of young people saying they support unions.

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Historically, young workers have been especially active at unionized workplaces in Maine. Young union members at Bath Iron Works and the Sappi Mill in Skowhegan led efforts in the past two years to reject company offers and win better contracts through collective action, O’Brien said.

HOUSE LEADERS EXPRESS SUPPORT

All three Democratic leaders of the Maine House of Representatives expressed support for the Biddeford Starbucks workers Friday in a joint news release, noting that the two top House Democrats are union members themselves.

“Biddeford has a long history of labor organizing going back to Maine workers fighting for better conditions in the textile mills,” said House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford. “Today, Biddeford’s Starbucks employees in my legislative district are making the choice to form a collective voice to advocate for themselves and strengthen their workplace. I am proud this movement is galvanizing Maine workers!”

Fecteau said all workers should have the right to form a union without intimidation. His support was echoed by House Majority Leader Michelle Dunphy, D-Old Town, and Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland.

“The Biddeford Starbucks has taken a brave and historic step today, and I congratulate them,” Dunphy said. “As a union member myself, I know what strength and relief comes when workers have the ability to organize and collectively bargain.”

“I am proud to stand in solidarity with workers who are taking this historic step as the first store in the state to join Starbucks Workers United,” Talbot Ross said. “By courageously moving this effort forward, the Biddeford store will join colleagues organizing across the country who are ensuring there is dignity in the workplace.”


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