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It wasn’t an ordinary Red Cup Day at Starbucks this year

Empty stores and unused cups: A look at the Starbucks strikes.

Striking Starbucks workers hold signs and chant outside of a Starbucks coffee shop in San Francisco.
Union workers are hoping a one-day strike on what some consider the busiest day of the year will get Starbucks to the bargaining table.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

Starbucks workers around the country are ringing in the holiday season with a strike.

More than 2,000 workers at over 100 Starbucks stores nationwide took part in their largest union action to date on Thursday, protesting the company’s refusal to bargain with unionized workers. They’re doing so on the 25th annual Red Cup Day, one of the busiest days of the year for the company, when Starbucks offers free reusable red cups with every holiday drink order. Instead of ringing up customers or making extravagant seasonal coffees, these workers are holding picket signs, talking to customers outside stores about the union, and handing out their own red cups decorated with a Grinch-like hand holding aloft an ornament bearing the Workers United union logo.

While striking stores represent just 1 percent of the 9,000 company-operated Starbucks in the US, their actions were highly visible to their customers and, through media coverage, to the American public, which has been increasingly supportive of unions.

“With 100 stores nationwide on strike today, I think it will definitely make an impact,” said Ash Macomber from outside her closed store, located 20 minutes from Portland, Maine. “Not only with profits, but to show the company that we are stronger together, and once we collectively take action, then maybe change can really be made.”

A union spokesperson said a “vast majority” of striking stores were closed today, meaning they didn’t bring in any revenue on what is typically a very lucrative day and is considered the start of Starbucks’ winter holiday push. Workers used words like “extraordinary” and “insane” to describe the typical traffic on Red Cup Day, with some estimating traffic to be double what it normally is. This year, some of those red cups are sitting in darkened stores.

Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment about the impact of the strikes. On an earnings call earlier this month, Starbucks founder Howard D. Schultz said, “The strength of our business as we exited September, coupled with a fantastic holiday lineup kicking off today, with our stores turning red, holiday favorites on the menu, and the return of our iconic red cups, gives us tremendous confidence heading into holiday in 2023.”

Stores that did open, staffed by managers, directors, and non-union employees from other stores, saw limited traffic as many customers refused to cross the picket line, workers said.

“We have not even a fraction of what would normally happen on regular Red Cup Day,” barista Maria Flores told Recode from the picket line outside her Queens store, which was being staffed by managers and people from other stores. “I’d say maybe like 75 percent of [customers] are turning around, and either taking cold-brew that we have here on the picket line or asking for another local coffee spot.”

She said some customers were joining the picket line while cars — and even subway drivers — honked in support.

“We had trains honking at us in solidarity,” Flores, whose Astoria Blvd location abuts a subway line, said.

In Jacksonville, Florida, a crew of 10 people, including about five managers, came in to replace the seven regular Starbucks workers who were scheduled that day, said Mason Boykin, a barista at a striking Starbucks there. Even still, that crew was only able to operate the drive-through (in-store, Uber Eats, and mobile ordering were shut down), and Boykin said they observed customers waiting as much as five minutes at the speaker box before they were attended to (they are typically taken care of immediately). The store closed early at 11 am.

Workers strike outside the Elmwood Starbucks near Buffalo, New York. The store is closed today since there were not enough people to work.
Michelle Eisen

Workers said that for the most part customers they spoke to outside their stores were incredibly supportive. Some joined the picket lines themselves, while others just wanted to know what was going on.

Roisin Potts, a shift supervisor at an Austin Starbucks, talked to customers from the parking lot after the management currently running the store asked that she and fellow strikers leave the property.

Thanks to social outreach and a customer base that’s very close with workers, Potts said a lot fewer people were entering the parking lot to begin with, since they knew the store was on strike. Many of those who did enter the parking lot didn’t end up going in the store.

“A lot of them are stopping to chat with us, asking some questions, and then leaving,” Potts said. “At least one person said, ‘I have coffee at home. I’ll just go home and make my own today.’”

Workers on strike outside an Austin Starbucks that is currently being staffed by managers, a regional director, and workers from other locations.
Atlas Danger

It’s been nearly a year since the first Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, voted to unionize. Since then, more than 250 others around the country have done so. For the most part, the company has refused to bargain with these stores. While the company has ostensibly started bargaining with 55 stores (up from just three this summer), those bargaining sessions are only superficial, said Michelle Eisen, a barista at the first unionized Starbucks whose store was closed today due to the strike. At these meetings Starbucks immediately refuses to have the bargaining happen over video call, something both Starbucks and the union had agreed was okay earlier in the pandemic. Union bargaining teams at each include workers from around the country, making it difficult to convene everyone in the same place, although many do attend in person.

“We use the term ‘at the table’ very loosely because they didn’t stay at the table for very long,” Eisen said.

The union has filed more than 400 unfair labor practice charges against the company. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the government body charged with overseeing labor issues, investigates each charge. So far, it has issued 45 complaints (covering 155 charges) against the company, meaning they’ve found at least some of the charges to have merit. The NLRB has issued a number of complaints over the company’s failure to bargain with stores across the country.

It’s not clear yet if today’s strikes will get Starbucks to bargain with the union, but workers felt it couldn’t hurt. It also helped them to see public support.

“We formed a really close relationship with our customers, and seeing them there supporting us was really incredible, despite how freezing cold and very windy it was,” Beck Green, whose Boston store was closed Thursday for the strike, said.

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