HomeAsian AmericansAs Am Starbucks workers join the "Red Cup Rebellion"

As Am Starbucks workers join the “Red Cup Rebellion”

by Nigel Whan, AsAmNews Intern

Unionized Starbucks workers across the US staged a strike on the coffee chain’s promotional Red Cup Day, November 16th, one of the most profitable days of the year for the $120 billion corporation. Workers also asked that customers boycott the store on the 16th to help them push for a solution to issues such as understaffing and low pay.

On Red Cup Day, Starbucks sells its drinks with free limited-edition reusable red cups, officially starting their holiday season—with all its seasonal drinks.

The strike, which has been dubbed the “Red Cup Rebellion,” was organized by Starbucks Workers United, an arm of Workers United. They’ve organized over 9,000 Starbucks “partners” and shift supervisors at over 360 stores, but the multinational corporation has been accused of consistently stalling any negotiations with the union.

The Red Cup Rebellion aims to pressure the corporation into signing a union contract guaranteeing SBWU’s demands: protecting a right to organize, implementing a process for discipline and firing that protects workers, raising wages, introducing a seniority system, better healthcare coverage (including benefits for transgender people available prior to October 2022), and other rights.

A Starbucks in Santa Cruz, California // Photo by TaurusEmerald via Wikimedia Commons

As Bloomberg Law reported, Starbucks has consistently lost cases involving labor law brought before judges from the National Labor Relations Board—losing 16 out of 17 cases, many of which involved anti-union tactics, in the eight months before June 2023.

To learn about the Red Cup Rebellion and the working environment at Starbucks, AsAmNews spoke to Asian American Starbucks workers, both unionized and not.

Understaffed, grueling shifts

A Pakistani American barista working at a San Francisco store believes “Starbucks needs to do better by its workers.”

She added that, “We’re constantly understaffed and there’s things managers can do like turning off mobile orders or deliveries, but the corporation won’t actually let them do that. The people who are actually working for Starbucks, the corporation, will not let them do that because they prioritize profit over the safety of their workers, the mental health of their workers.”

She considers herself lucky to never have been scheduled to work Red Cup Day, especially later in the day when the red cups run out and customers get angry, but told us about how Starbucks veterans warn new baristas about Red Cup Day weeks in advance.

“Working at Starbucks in general is not manageable and leads to extreme burnout and fatigue, which sucks because even if you barely work any hours you are truly tired,” said another barista we spoke to who works in the Bay Area.

To make a living wage, “$18.50 times 40 is way different than $18.50 times 12—but even with the twelve you’re still getting burnt out because of how much they don’t help workers or care about having a healthy, well-staffed workplace,” he explained.

The inside of a Starbucks at a Target in Manteca, California // Photo by TaurusEmerald via Wikimedia Commons

As a biracial white and Korean American, he said he hasn’t had customer anger turn racially charged against himself. “To be fair I live in a city where the population is mostly Asian, and also haven’t worked at Starbucks for that long, and with the model minority myth and everything like that, being half white, I don’t think I’ve received any racism.”

Harassment and racist abuse

For other Asian American baristas, their experience with anti-Asian hate at Starbucks has been very different.

“We get a lot of racist customers and to be honest, I don’t feel like I’m empowered to stand up to customers,” said the Pakistani American barista we interviewed.

Though he hasn’t been confronted with anti-Asian hate directly against himself, the unionized Korean American barista did tell us about an experience a non-unionized coworker of his had.

“A customer came in, I don’t know how he found out she was anti-union or at least not pro-union, and he told her ‘Unions are American—you need to be more American,’ so that’s clearly racist to a Southeast Asian person,” he said.

The Pakistani American Starbucks worker pointed out that the verbal abuse some customers inflict on baristas disproportionately affects Asian Americans and other people of color.

“I’ve been in experiences where I’ve had to have a white coworker standing behind me while I’m taking orders, because sometimes we’ll have ‘the racist regular’ come in,” she said, adding that managers are very reluctant to kick out regulars and risk losing their business.

She also says, “I can’t really see Starbucks doing anything about it,” because their business model is “Prioritizing profit over employees and trying to make it right for customers no matter what.”

Though she told us how much worse it is for her coworkers with stronger accents, nevertheless, “You definitely feel undervalued by customers when you’re a person of color working there.”

We also heard about anti-Asian hate perpetrated by coworkers at Starbucks. The Pakistani American barista we interviewed said she had one coworker “assume my parents are strict or abusive simply because I’m Asian.” She didn’t report her since the coworkers had been let off with multiple warnings and no disciplinary action when reported by others.

A Starbucks in Northville, Michigan // Photo by Todd Van Hoosear via Wikimedia Commons

Unionization and contract talks

Along with the rest of her store, the Pakistani American barista isn’t unionized, but thinks that unionization could force Starbucks to finally confront its issues.

“Unionization is good because it can force the company to overall treat its workers better, and if workers are respected more, it would be easier to stand up for ourselves, but also we wouldn’t fear being written up or losing our job if we kick someone out for being racist,” she said.

As for anti-Asian prejudice and hate expressed in the workplace, she told us, “A union could improve workplace anti-Asian racism because we would have someone to advocate for us when supervisors’ or managers’ reporting just depends on how informed the supervisor or manager is about anti-Asian racism.”

The unionized Korean American barista we spoke to emphasized that what they need is a contract with Starbucks protecting broader rights for workers.

“But Starbucks has refused to negotiate in good faith to sign a contract so in terms of the big picture, nothing has really improved,” he said.

Quoted in the Dallas Morning News, Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull turned the same accusation against the union, accusing them of stalling negotiations despite “escalating rhetoric.” He claimed that “Starbucks remains ready to progress in-person negotiations with the unions certified to represent partners.”

The Starbucks Workers United member we spoke to denied the accusations, telling us that Starbucks has avoided signing a contract.

“They’ve proven they would much rather pay off the fines than actually care about their workers,” he said.

Editor’s Note: The Starbucks stores pictured in this article are not directly related to the story. AsAmNews did not contact any of the locations pictured or speak to any workers at those locations.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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