Unionized Starbucks workers wrapped up six hours of bargaining Thursday by filling a conference room with chants of “We pull the shots, we call the shots” and “No contract, no coffee,” their collective voices carrying down the hall and into the lobby of the DoubleTree Hotel, Downtown.

Their spirits were high, despite the fact that little, if any, progress was made toward reaching an agreement with the coffee company.

“I almost want to say it went well but then realized the only reason it went well was because the bar for this was on the floor,” said Starbucks Workers United organizer Tori Tambellini. “What I consider ‘going well’ is that they stayed for more than five minutes. They didn’t come with any counter proposals, they didn’t agree to anything, but they did sit there and listen to us and nitpick some of our wording.”

Jacob Welsh, 31, an employee of the Starbucks Bloomfield store, said the union had given the company its proposals during a session in October. “They know what we’re asking for, and they came with no counterproposals,” he said. Company attorneys questioned contract wording — at one point, asking what is the meaning of  “reasonable” — and claimed that the union’s proposals were “complicated” and that the company would get back to the workers with a response at some future point. 

“This is what we expected,” he said. “We know they’re just here to do surface-level bargaining, to make it seem like they’re complying with the law.”

Negotiators spent the day on contract proposals for the East Side store in East Liberty, one of a dozen unionized Starbucks locations in the Pittsburgh area. The issues and proposals discussed, however, are the same for all unionized locations, organizers said.

Bargaining centered on the workers’ noneconomic proposals in areas such as health and safety and “just-cause” protections, which provide workers more security when pushing back against unsafe working conditions and various forms of harassment.

Tambellini, 24, said workers feel they risk termination if they refuse to serve customers who hurl racial and homophobic epithets. “We’ve had people fired for that,” she said. The union wants policies that support and protect these workers.

Sexual harassment is a top concern of Starbucks baristas, said Welsh.

“Anyone who works in food service knows how prevalent that is,” he said. “But I think a lot of people don’t realize how prevalent it is for baristas. It speaks to the way we’re viewed in the public. A lot of times workers are afraid to speak up about things that happen every day in every Starbucks. We want to be able to speak up and keep ourselves safe without fear of retaliation.”

Lilian Real, 24, an employee of the East Side Store, said she has felt pressured by managers to continue serving customers despite being sexually harassed and, on one occasion, getting burned with  a 170-degree espresso shot. “I felt like I couldn’t leave the floor without getting in trouble, and I don’t like getting in trouble at my workplace. That is not safe or healthy.”

Real described her experiences to Starbucks’ lawyers during the session. Christi Sessa, an employee of the Bloomfield store, expressed frustration that the company representatives seemed dismissive of the workers’ concerns. Sessa, 26, said those concerns always take a back seat to profits.

Starbucks workers filled the room with more than two dozen workers and organizers during the bargaining session, and those who spoke up to describe their workplace experiences seemed energized by the experience, even if they felt their concerns were dismissed by company representatives.

“Sometimes I feel like we’re looked at as if we’re just some spunky kids fighting against a big corporation,” Sessa said. “It’s not true. We are intelligent and brave and compassionate people who care about this company. We care about each other and care about our jobs. That’s why we’re here.”

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.