Jacob Welsh’s audience knew by experience what he was talking about when he discussed the issues faced by 10% of this country’s workforce: unstable jobs, low pay, inconsistent schedules, limited access to benefits, high rates of turnover. 

“You work holidays, you have next to no savings,” he said. “You have no idea what’s going to happen next month. You scrape by, paycheck to paycheck.”

That 10% — the second-largest private workforce in the U.S. — is made up of restaurant and food service industry workers. And Welsh, an employee of the Starbucks store in Bloomfield, was speaking to a gathering of more than 100 unionized Starbucks workers and their supporters during Thursday afternoon’s rally at Schenley Plaza in Oakland.

The gathering was part of Starbucks Workers United’s “The Union Is Calling” bus tour, which kicked off July 16 in Louisville, Kentucky. After spending a few days in Pittsburgh, the “Starbus,” as the workers dubbed their vehicle, will carry dozens of workers to rallies in Philadelphia and then Buffalo, New York.

Speakers at the Pittsburgh rally stressed the unique and historic nature of the Starbucks organizing effort, the importance of inclusion, and declared solidarity with other fed-up workers involved in labor actions across the country.

Unionized Starbucks worker Jacob Welsh discusses the challenges of working in the restaurant and food service industry. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Welsh got things started by discussing the challenges of working in a restaurant or cafe — challenges that make it nearly impossible for employees to start families or purchase homes. 

“The common sentiment isn’t just that that’s the way fast food work has to be. Many folks think that’s the way it is supposed to be,” he said. “We have the opportunity to raise the bar for people in the fast-food and cafe industry. Our first contract isn’t just a first for us. It will be the first of its kind.”

Welsh noted that workers have unionized 350 Starbucks stores in 1½ years of organizing. “We’re going to keep getting stronger and set the standard for how food service industry workers should be treated,” he said.

Starbucks is fully aware of what’s at stake, he said, and the coffee giant is determined to drag out the fight in an effort to the exhaust the union and its resources. Welsh said, however, that “I’m not giving up, and my co-workers are not going to give up.”

He drew parallels with other organizing drives and labor battles across the country and locally.

“We’re going to fight for museum workers, teachers, writers, package carriers. We’re going to support the double strike in Hollywood, the UPS Teamsters,” he said. “Here in Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette workers have been on strike for almost a year, and if they’re not giving up, neither are we.”

Sean Sluder, a transgender woman, paused while discussing her employment at a Starbucks store in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Sean Sluder, a transgender woman, said she was excited to work at a Starbucks store in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. She knew Starbucks offered industry-leading benefits, including health care for trans people — all that was required was 20 hours of work each week. It was, she said, “a dream job.”

“I felt like I found a place that cared about me,” she said. “My co-workers treated me as part of a team. They respected my identity, they defended me whenever customers misgendered me or said anything disrespectful of me. I got those industry-leading benefits, and for the first time I didn’t have to pay for my hormones out of my own pocket.”

But then the store manager went on maternity leave, and new managers began scheduling Sluder just under 20 hours. She understood that the company’s “default” position was to schedule her just under the number of hours required to receive benefits.

“Trans and queer people have very little choice about where to go to get coverage for the health care they need, so they flock to Starbucks,” she said. “They’re willing to work themselves to death for a chance to have the life they dreamed of.

“But if the default is for us to not get those industry-leading benefits, then that makes us just good PR. We’re a marketing tactic, something they can get headlines written about, to bring in business from anyone slightly left of center who’s trying to show allyship by giving the corporation their money. I don’t want to be PR. I don’t want to be a marketing tactic. I want Starbucks to live up to the missions and values they keep reminding us of.”

Brittani Murray, Pride at Work co-president, said the workplace organizing now taking place is historic. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Brittani Murray, co-president of Pride at Work, which represents LGBTQ+ union members and their allies, told the Starbucks workers that their organizing efforts will be remembered in years to come.

“What is occurring night now is monumental and historic,” she said. “It is galvanizing an entire generation to step up and step out in the workplace. It has transformed modern-day organizing and is creating opportunities for more inclusive organizing drives, leadership and victories. What we are witnessing will, in my opinion, be studied for decades as a flashpoint event of workers organizing and building solidarity with each other.”

Murray said the Starbucks campaign is mirrored in organizing efforts across the country.

“We see workers, especially LGBTQ+ workers, stepping up in droves to demand better returns for their labor. From teachers to truck drivers to writers, actors, sex workers, and even our siblings in the migrant farmers’ struggle, workers are fighting for better conditions, safety, dignity and an end to the wage theft that plagues too many industries.”

The NewsGuild President Jon Schleuss discusses his early work as a Starbucks barista. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Jon Schleuss, president of The NewsGuild, which represents striking Post-Gazette newsroom workers, told the crowd that his first full-time job was at a Starbucks store in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was, at the time, “totally drinking the Kool-Aid,” he said. “I memorized the mission statement and knew the guiding principles. And I knew the goal of my job was to create this third space, away from home and work, to give people a connection.”

He grew to learn, however, that the company’s claim to be guided by principle is a deception.

“It is a race to be bottom with Starbucks,” he said. “They are raking in $22 billion a year and doing nothing to respect the workers.”

Sara Innamorato, Democratic nominee for Allegheny County executive, talks about her work as a barista before she entered politics. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Sara Innamorato, Democratic nominee for Allegheny County executive and former state representative, reminded people that she was working as a barista at a local bakery when she first decided to run for political office.

“What I heard from the person I was running against was, ‘She can’t win. She’s just a barista,’” Innamorato said. “We know how that worked out.”

“You’re not just standing up for yourself and your paycheck,” she said. “You’re saying you care about your fellow worker, and you care about the people who are going to come after you, long after you are gone. You are breathing new life and new energy into the labor movement not just in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County but across America.”

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.