Customers flock to Starbucks Coffee shops during promotional events.
At peak hours on days such as Thursday’s Red Cup Day — when customers can get a holiday-themed reusable cup — Starbucks workers say the volume of patrons easily can be more than double what they usually see.
But, the workers say, staffing levels don’t increase with the demand, making the rush a “horrendous” time for them as the orders keep coming and the lines continue to grow.
“It’s really frustrating because I’m standing in one spot all day, I’m getting yelled at by customers, everyone is staring at me doing my job,” said Abbie Levans, a barista at the South Side Starbucks. “I already feel like a zoo animal, I’m sweaty, I want a cigarette, my break’s probably going to be late if I get one, and then, by the time I go home, my feet hurt, I just want to go and cry.”
That experience is part of why Starbucks workers at scores of shops in Pittsburgh and around the country walked off the job and struck on Thursday in what was dubbed the Red Cup Rebellion. The rebellion was the latest day of action in a yearslong campaign waged by Starbucks workers to get company executives to recognize and respect their federally guaranteed right to organize.
The Starbucks workers are demanding better pay, increased job security, improved safety measures they say would benefit both employees and customers, and more. Starbucks, however, has responded slowly and has, in many cases, illegally retaliated against workers who lead organizing efforts and shops that successfully unionize.
In response to the rebellion, Starbucks said in an emailed statement, “we have nearly 10,000 stores open right now delighting our customers with the joy of Red Cup Day. Currently, there are fewer than 100 stores where some partners have chosen to participate in protest activities, but the majority of those stores are open and serving customers.”
Starbucks said it understands promotional days change store patterns and traffic, and “that’s why our retail leaders have the flexibility to build and adjust staffing schedules to reflect the unique and dynamic needs of each store — balancing store resources and expected customer demand to ensure partners are on the floor when they’re needed most.
“Notably, our store schedules are created three weeks in advance with our partners’ availability and preferences at the forefront,” the statement continued. “Our stores are often provided additional labor hours to augment staffing in support of planned promotional days, including for Red Cup Day.”
Casper Borowitz, a shift supervisor at the Amos Hall Starbucks in Oakland, said that in her experience, staffing has been inadequate on promotional days.
On a recent Thursday when drinks were half off, for example, the staff of four at the Amos Hall Starbucks made more than 1,000 drinks in one hour — more than four times what they typically make at peak hours.
“From a shift supervisor perspective, I just feel awful for my baristas because there’s not much I can really do for them,” Borowitz said. “I have to put them on the front lines to make all of these drinks and deal with all of these customers who are at this point now waiting sometimes an hour for their drink. I understand that frustration as well as I understand our frustrations from the other side of the bar.”
Borowitz said she hoped that the rebellion makes Starbucks management realize that the workers are the ones who do the hard work to make the business successful and makes them respect their employees’ demands.
Borowitz loves being a barista and the connections she’s been able to make with customers despite the difficult working conditions, she said. And she refuses to leave her job because she wants to make Starbucks a better place to work.
“Now that I’m involved with the union, I feel like I can’t really leave, like I’d be quitting on [my friends and customers],” Borowitz said. “I care about my employees and my fellow baristas who are getting screwed over by these working changes and by these union-busting attempts. I don’t want to leave them high and dry. Not only do I enjoy fighting for these types of rights, but [also] it is something that I strongly believe in.”
Strikers from around the Pittsburgh area gathered at about 1 p.m. outside the Amos Hall shop, where they handed out leaflets and asked members of the public to delete the Starbucks app from their phones. They earned support from many people who walked by as well as motorists who honked their vehicles’ horns as they drove along Fifth Avenue and saw the signs being held by some of the workers.
Workers not only struck at several Starbucks locations in Pittsburgh but also leafleted customers outside of nonunion shops to garner awareness of their efforts and encourage employees at those stores to join their movement.
At the nonunion Starbucks at the corner of Forbes and Shady avenues in Squirrel Hill, six striking workers from other shops leafleted passersby as many drivers honked in support.
Before their action concluded, striker Branston Peese, a barista at the Starbucks at Forbes Avenue and Craig Street in Oakland, led the group inside and emptied their pockets of cash into the tip jar.
“We were just about to leave, and I wanted to support the baristas who are working,” Peese said.
“So,” he continued, “I have some cash, I’ll drop some in the tip jar. Corporate can’t get that.”