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Oklahoma Starbucks employees are following the national trend of pushing for unionization


Many Starbucks employees in Oklahoma are unhappy with corporate and higher management.

“It feels like sometimes higher ups come in and change things in a store. And they don't really take into account like, baristas point of view,” said Jennifer Ramirez, a Starbucks barista in Norman.

“Some other issues, for me personally, have been around COVID. And the fact that we've been lifting a lot of restrictions. We've felt like maybe Starbucks wasn't taking our safety as seriously,” said Jack MacKay, another Starbucks barista and one of Ramirez’s coworkers. 

But these employees don’t want to leave Starbucks - they want to change it.

“We care about the company enough to fix some of the issues that we have. But overall, we all love the company,” said Ramirez.

“We just kind of want the ability to say what happens at our store,” said MacKay.

That’s why the employees of several Starbucks locations in Oklahoma have petitioned to unionize, following a nationwide trend that started in Buffalo, New York last year.

Ramirez and MacKay both signed the petition in support of their Norman Starbucks to unionize. They credit Starbucks Workers United - which is based in Buffalo, with giving them the support they needed to create a petition.

William Westlake, a Starbucks barista in Buffalo, and member of the national organizing committee for Starbucks Workers United, says Starbucks corporate may be overlooking Oklahoma.

“I think they think that there isn't much work that has to be done to stop Oklahoma partners from voting for a union,” said Westlake.

Despite this, Starbucks employees in Oklahoma say they’re seeing their hours cut, like other Starbucks employees around the country. Since many of Starbucks’ employee benefits, including health care, are only available after a certain hour threshold is met, loss of hours can mean loss of health care. Westlake says this is a union busting tactic with unintended consequences.

“If I'm a worker who, you know, is primarily at this job for health care, and all of a sudden, the company's just able to take away my ability to receive health care, a lot of people who were relying on the benefits now face an existential reason to need to unionize,” said Westlake.

Niko Melton and Mari Nguyen say that’s true for them, and that loss of health care - particularly the loss of transgender health care - was one of their biggest motivators for signing the petition to unionize at their Oklahoma City Starbucks.

“We are a store that like, mostly consists of queer and LGBT people,” said Melton. “Starbucks, in general, they offer a really good trans health care program, but you have to reach, you know, a certain minimum of hours to be able to access these benefits and get this like, life saving health care.”

“We're just looking out for each other. And I don't think there'd be anyone else, like any other job I've had that would do that for me - to fight for my rights as a worker to be able to get my hours back, and then to be able to keep my insurance or any other benefits that we do have,” said Nguyen.

While this particular wave of union support might seem new to Oklahoma, it is far from the first worker’s rights movement in the state. Larry O’Dell, the director of communications and development for the Oklahoma Historical Society, said labor unions were prevalent and influential in Oklahoma’s history.

“In 1906, the Oklahoma Farmers Union, the Railroad Brotherhood, and these labor unions, met in Shawnee and created what is called the Shawnee Demands, which they presented to the Constitutional Convention. The Oklahoma constitution was very pro-labor,” O’Dell said.

More than100 years later, O’Dell said Oklahoma Starbucks unions would not be much different from the unions of the past.

Whether or not these Oklahoma Starbucks locations will unionize is yet to be seen, but employees in support of unionizing - like Jennifer Ramirez - are hopeful.

“I think I can speak for every partner that we love Starbucks, and we're here for a reason. We just love our store and we just want to make it better,” said Ramirez.

Elections for the Oklahoma stores that have petitioned are coming up in May.

KGOU is a community-supported news organization and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.

Hannah France started her work in public radio at KBIA while studying journalism at the University of Missouri. While there, she helped develop and produce a weekly community call-in show, for which she and her colleagues won a Gracie Award. Hannah takes interest in a wide variety of news topics, which serves her well as a reporter and producer for KGOU.
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