Editor’s Note: Matthew O-G of Solidarity News recorded the audio for the entirety of the event that was used for this article.
Employees at several Starbucks Coffee shops across Eugene are trying to unionize and the employees at the University of Oregon’s Erb Memorial Union shop aren’t going to be left out.
On Mar. 9, over two months after initially filing to unionize, employees held a rally—and many signs—at the EMU Amphitheater. At 1:45 p.m., a crowd of around 40 people gathered, defiantly in the rain, to lend support to the employees of the coffee shop in their efforts and listen to speeches.
The first speaker was Owen Wach, an employee and supervisor at the EMU Starbucks. Having “worked at almost every store in the district,” Wach said that the EMU location wants to unionize because “we aren’t respected by our corporate-level staff,” “we don’t get paid very well,” and when the staff collectively asked the manager if they could get paid better were, essentially, told no. Wach is also worried that they’ll be fired like other union-organizing leaders across the country.
Wach wasn’t the only employee who spoke about the EMU location in comparison with their previous employment. Alexia Müller, another employee who was later described as one of the main organizers, spoke at length.
Müller said that they had worked at several locations in California prior to coming to Oregon. They said they began working at the EMU location during their freshman year, are now in their senior year, and that the location is “the worst store I’ve worked at.”
“The size of the store” and “the lack of safety” are their main concerns. “I, personally, got a concussion from being hit in the head with an oven door in the store and nobody followed-up to see how I was doing,” they said. “Our district manager didn’t care.” Following their concussion, Müller said “I got paid $96 for 22 hours a week that I missed, so, I technically should’ve got around $200.”
“It’s just way too small,” Müller said about the size of the Starbucks considering the number of orders that are dealt with. “Every other store that I’ve worked at has new espresso machines,” they said as an example of the location’s needed updating. “They tell us we can’t have them because they’re five inches too big for our space.”
Starbucks has alluded to renovations in the past.
“When I was a Freshman, a guy came in with a 360 [degree] camera saying ‘oh yeah, you guys are getting a remodel,’” Müller said. “Well, I’m now a Senior and there has been no remodel.”
Alexia also talked about the pay.
“Last year, I struggled with pay and pay inconsistencies,” they said. “At that time, I was working for the company about two-years-and-three-quarters and I found out that a one-year partner was making almost a dollar more than me.” Müller said that they went to their district manager about the issue only to be, personally, referred to as “a glitch” until later corrected. They also contacted “12 different people in Starbucks corporate for a whole month” before getting their pay raise. “But it should not take that. It should not take talking to 12 people and struggling to get call-backs,” they said.
A lot of issues that other Starbucks nationwide face are echoed here at the EMU.
One example iterated by others is how management “purposely stacks the schedule with 5.75 hour shifts so that they don’t have to give us lunch breaks,” Müller said. “The amount of 5.75 shifts I work are insane.”
Pay inconsistencies, too, of course. “Even at Franklin and Villard, there is a shift supervisor, working for about 11 years, who barely makes more than a partner working for two years,” they said.
About Starbucks at-large, they said. “You tell the public, you tell the society, you tell the world how great of a company you are and you’re not. You’re just toxic. It’s like a toxic best friend that you can’t get away from because a lot of students here, especially, we don’t have a lot of access to get to job that are far away, so, being on campus is convenient and we don’t have many options, so, a lot of people do really feel stuck.”
The next speaker was Avinnash Tiwari, a UO instructor and the president of United Academics, the faculty union.
Tiwari spoke about power and who has the ability to make changes that affect how society functions. “Collective power gives us a shot at doing something different,” he said before bringing up the fact that large corporations have “more rights” than the employees who work for them. He ended his speech by saying that the faculty union supports the employees in their efforts.
Michael Marchman, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation’s staff organizer, spoke next and relayed their union’s support of the Starbucks employees both at UO and nationwide.
They said that unionization efforts at Starbucks, Amazon, and other places “is historic and historically important.” For everyone else, they said that people “need to be prepared to put our money where our mouth is,” before speaking about the suppression of unions. Also mentioned was how even once the ball gets rolling, it’ll be an effort to maintain it and, in the end, a “steamroller movement” needs to be the end result. It needs to overwhelm the existing system.
The movement, though, needs to be cohesive and people need to figure out how to talk to one another respectfully and transparently. Talking honestly about one’s wages is essential.
Louie Vidmar, an IT worker at UO and steward of SEIU, spoke next and talked about their union’s recent accomplishment of establishing a wage floor at the university. He also reminded the crowd that unions and union organizing run on caffeine.
“The revolution will be caffeinated,” Marchman also said.
Following Vidmar’s speech and statement of solidarity, Christian Sevey, another Starbucks employee, came outside to speak during his lunch break.
Sevey spoke at-length about how professional his coworkers are and how they are underpaid. “They are very good at their job. They all know what they are doing. They’re all very capable at handling the big rushes that you have all seen,” they said. “They also get paid, per paycheck, the least out of all the other Starbucks in Eugene.”
They said that, recently, Starbucks has been mentioning a possible remodel of the EMU location now that employees are attempting to unionize. “They’re doing that so that they can prove to us that we don’t need a union. Starbucks can take care of us,” they said. “They want to help us but why didn’t they before?”
“They’re scared,” Sevey answered.
Next were speakers from the UO Student Workers Campaign who spoke about the results of a survey that was sent out to student workers on campus.
One of the statements said that many students felt uncomfortable coming back to work on campus during COVID-19 and, because of inadequate management, workers ended up enforcing mask mandates only to be met with verbal assaults. An RA had also said that they had been the university’s sole COVID-19 response team and were put in dangerous situations and were often threatened.
Another statement noted the need for decent pay for food services, which they explained is the reason that so many food places on campus are understaffed.
Before the end of the rally, around 3 p.m., members of the UO Youth Democratic Socialists reiterated the necessity to speak openly with coworkers about wages and workplace issues.
At the time of EMU shop’s filing, over 60 others nationwide had done so, too, leading a new wave of unionizing efforts.
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