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Union drive at Wichita Starbucks part of a larger, revitalized labor movement

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Daniel Caudill
Unionizing workers at the Starbucks at 21st and Amidon created custom bumper stickers for their union drive. The workers will have an official ballot count in August.

A drive to organize: Wichita Starbucks workers push for better pay and working conditions.

Maia Cuellar Serafini is one of the baristas leading a union drive at the Starbucks on 21st and Amidon.

This is her first time trying to unionize a workplace, but the 24-year-old is no stranger to the concept, as her father was a longtime member of the Kansas teachers union.

But go back just one more generation in her family, and Cuellar Serafini says you’ll find the appeal of unions, especially for people of color and other disenfranchised people. “My grandpa worked on the railroads and he was Mexican-American,” she said. “And he definitely was not part of a union and was not afforded the same rights and fair treatment that his white counterparts were.”

Cuellar Serafini and her coworkers represent a larger movement of young labor organizers who see unions as the key to not only better pay and benefits, but to building collective power that can uplift workers from all industries and backgrounds.

If successful in their union drive, the Starbucks workers hope to secure a contract with better pay, more consistent hours, accountability from management, and a private space for breast-feeding employees to pump breast milk.

Maia Cuellar Serafini.JPG
Daniel Caudill
Maia Cuellar Serafini is one of the baristas leading a union drive at the Starbucks at 21st and Amidon in Wichita. The workers want better pay, more consistent hours and accountability from management.

One person who would help them negotiate a potential contract is Esau Freeman, business representative of the local Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Freeman said the labor movement is key to building unity across party lines and ideologies.

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Daniel Caudill
Esau Freeman

“I think that when workers unite, we can change things and we can make things better for everybody,” he said.

And recent polling by CNBC shows the highest level of bipartisan support for unions in the US since the late 1970s. The poll indicates a majority of Democrats and Independents want more unionization in their workplaces, along with about 46% of Republicans.

This support comes despite the fact that only about 1 in 10 Americans are actually in a union.

The strength of unions has dwindled over the last several decades, including through right-to-work laws and the country’s shift away from manufacturing.

Corrupt or out-of-touch leadership in some major unions also left parts of the public disenchanted with unions overall.

Freeman said modern regulations have reined in much of the corruption that soured the reputation of unions. Still, he said labor leaders should work to change that perception.

“A union is just like a church. If the preacher’s sleeping with all the ladies in the choir and stealing money out of the collection plate … you have a bad organization,” he said.

With public support for unions on the rise, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) said filings for union elections are also up 57% compared to this time last year.

But while labor leaders are optimistic about the recent rise in union support, organizing workers still face a number of obstacles.

For example, the NLRB alleges Starbucks has engaged in a widespread campaign of anti-union activity in the last year. That includes complaints that the company has illegally fired pro-union workers in retaliation.

At one unionizing store in Overland Park, management allegedly threatened to deny a pro-union, transgender employee gender-affirming health care – a benefit that Starbucks touts in hiring material.

And Billionaire CEO Howard Schultz has perhaps been Starbucks’ most vocal opponent of the union effort, saying the company will never embrace it.

“There is an outside force that is trying to disrupt the future of our company,” Schultz said.

Despite the opposition, more than 300 Starbucks stores have filed for a union vote since the first store successfully unionized in Buffalo, New York, in December. That accounts for less than 1% of the 15,000 stores in the U.S.

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Daniel Caudill
Arden Ingram

In Wichita, workers started receiving ballots this month and will have an official result in August.

Arden Ingram, another organizer in the union drive, said workers are nervous for the vote, but hopeful.

“I think that a lot of stores [in Wichita] are waiting to see how it turns out with us, and I think that, depending on how it goes with us, it might affect how other stores handle this in the future,” she said.

The organizers say about 70% of their coworkers support the union drive. They’ll need at least 50% of the votes to win it.

One critique often directed at unionizing workers is, “why not just get another job?”

For Ingram, the answer is clear.

“Those issues are systemic. It’s not one store, one company. It’s everywhere,” she said. “I think it would be very good, if you can – if you have the opportunity and resources – to fight against that.”

Daniel Caudill is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. He was a reporter, photographer and digital content manager for The Derby Informer and an editor and reporter for The Sunflower. In the spring of 2020, Daniel helped cover the legislative session in Topeka as an intern for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @CaudillKMUW.