Release Date: December 9, 2021
BUFFALO, N.Y. — University at Buffalo labor experts Erin Hatton and Matthew Dimick are available to discuss Starbucks workers in Buffalo voting to form the coffee giant’s first labor union in the United States.
Dimick is an associate professor of law whose work examines the relationship between labor and employment law, tax and welfare policy, and economic inequality.
Hatton is an associate professor of sociology who can speak about labor movements, the gig economy, minimum wage and other issues related to labor policy and inequity in the workforce.
Below are their responses to issues surrounding the historic vote.
Buffalo is among the most unionized metro areas in the US. Why is that?
Dimick: “Most native Buffalonians have a union member or two or more in their family history, for whom having a union on the job made possible a higher standard of living, better work conditions, and a better work-life balance. Most Buffalonians probably see unions as a positive, and are therefore more willing to join and form unions than in other parts of the country.”
Hatton: “New York State has the highest union density of any state. Buffalo-Niagara’s union density is lower than the state average, but it’s still higher than similar cities in other states. Buffalo and other Rust Belt cities had a strong tradition of labor organizing in its industrial sector in the mid-20th century, but that dropped sharply (in Buffalo and elsewhere) due to deindustrialization (which included industrial employers moving to the South, Southwest, and abroad to avoid unions) and employers’ aggressive push against unions.”
Has SPoT Coffee (local coffee chain) workers’ vote in 2019 to unionize played a role in this effort?
Dimick: “The workers’ victory at SPoT Coffee showed it was possible to organize baristas and other workers in the food service industry. And it’s in SPoT Coffee workers’ interest to organize all coffee shop workers, so that these businesses aren’t competing with each other based on the lowest wages, and therefore lowest prices.”
If Buffalo employees approve the union, how might this affect other Starbucks locations?
Hatton: “I think we are already seeing growing interest across Starbucks locations, in Buffalo and elsewhere, in unionizing. It’s an exciting moment for these workers who have been largely overlooked by the labor movement and who, themselves, may not have even considered unionizing in the realm of possibility.”
Dimick: “This is an enormous symbolic victory that gives a green light to organizing in other Starbucks. With Starbucks’ very well-known brand and public profile, it will also probably have effects beyond Starbucks. Workers in the food service industry are typically not union members and wages and working conditions are among the worst. If unionizing workers can win against a corporate behemoth like Starbucks, they can win anywhere.”
Starbucks is a left-leaning company, yet it still opposes this effort. Why?
Hatton: “Regardless of corporations’ professed politics, at the end of the day, most corporations care about the bottom line more than any particular political issue, which — it is important to note — is itself political. What’s more, they tend to believe that unions are bad for their bottom line, even though that’s not necessarily true. Yes, labor costs may increase with unionization, but other costs usually decrease. The resounding success of UPS (which is strongly unionized) in weathering this economic crisis and supposed labor shortage is a case in point.”
Dimick: “Despite being a company with ‘liberal values,’ Starbucks opposes unionization because for giant, profit-oriented companies like Starbucks, the ‘do good’ rhetoric only goes so far. Among all left-leaning values, nothing hurts the bottom line like unionization and requiring a company to treat its employees better. By putting on a good corporate citizen visage, Starbucks earns the support — and patronage — of the (probably) majority of consumers who hold these same values. Being a good environmental steward, for example, helps Starbucks win over consumers, sales, and therefore profits. In that respect, Starbucks is acting consistently with its profit-maximizing goals. Thus, in terms of winning over consumers, profits and left-leaning values go hand in hand (although one could certainly question the depth of this commitment as well). When it comes to unions and workers, rather than consumers, left-wing values and profits are in contradiction. Unfortunately, for Starbucks’ workers, profits win out over giving workers an independent voice on the job.”