The Starbucks located in northeast Charlotte’s Mallard Pointe shopping center tends to be relatively quiet on Monday evenings, but at 5 p.m. on April 4, the store experienced an evening rush. Activists carrying colorful signs crowded into the shop. Several employees clocked out and sat down together. Meanwhile, half a dozen drink orders came through, all under one name: “Union YES!”
Starbucks employees and their allies hosted the April 4 rally to celebrate their work toward unionizing the Mallard Pointe Starbucks. On March 26, the group went public with their intent to file for union elections after months of organizing.
Mallard Pointe is the third Starbucks in North Carolina to announce intent to file for union elections, and one of 200 nationwide currently fighting to join Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), a union advocating for employees of the coffeehouse giant.
Employees — or “partners,” as Starbucks calls them — at the Mallard Pointe location allege months of managerial mistreatment, including short-staffing, maintenance issues and, on one occasion, retaliatory dismissals. Queen City Nerve sat down with some of them to find out more about their fight for representation.
Why Starbucks workers want a union
When 19-year-old barista Finn Woods first considered unionizing, he did not think he’d lose his job.
“I knew the risks when we were unionizing,” he said. “[Starbucks does] this stuff all the time. But I never really thought it would happen to me.”
His story began in January 2022, when Lauren Shiel, a member of union advocacy group Raise Up, visited the store. She was scouting Starbucks locations at which employees might be interested in joining a union and struck up a conversation with Woods and his coworker, Jasper Chamberlain.
Shiel told them SBWU was helping baristas throughout the South organize. The pair immediately took to the idea.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Oh, I could see this being something that would help us with the problems we’re currently facing,'” Chamberlain said.
The store had been through a turbulent year. When Woods transferred to Mallard Pointe from Wilkesboro in August 2021, he was greeted with a mostly inexperienced staff due to high turnover during the summer. General manager Patricia Terrell had just left on medical leave and a temporary general manager was presiding in her place in addition to managing another store at the same time.
Woods and other baristas described an atmosphere of chaos including incidents ranging from scheduling mishaps to broken equipment to mismanagement, which pushed them to the brink.
“The store was in shambles,” Woods said. “Everything was out of order.”
When Terrell returned, there wasn’t much improvement. Employees allege they were short-staffed, stating in their letter of intent to unionize that they only had “half the crew size” expected for a store as busy as Mallard Pointe.
Overwhelmed with work, employees told Queen City Nerve the night crew often had trouble completing closing procedures, leaving the opening crew to pick up slack during the morning rush.
The high employee turnover rates frustrated Trey Bowen, a trainer who has worked at Starbucks for two and a half years. Though he studies full-time at UNC Charlotte, Bowen recalled one week this year where he logged 30 hours training two new employees.
“I’m the only trainer on our night crew now, because the other trainer got transferred into morning shifts,” he said. “So on top of being a barista and being a full-time student, I’m the only one that really trains new people who come in to be night workers.”
Meanwhile, store maintenance continued to fall by the wayside. When the dishwasher broke in March 2022, workers claim management did not secure a replacement for a month, leaving employees no choice but to wash every dish by hand. Backed up pipes caused one end of the store to smell like sewage. A fruit fly infestation grew so bad that one night, Terrell shut down the store early and asked baristas to deal with it.
Though employees inundated management with requests for repairs and pest control, they allege higher-ups issued denials or ignored them completely.
“One of the things that I know initially led us to start unionizing was what I perceived to be a huge lack of communication,” Chamberlain said. “On multiple occasions, they’ve lied to our face.”
On March 8, Terrell gave Woods an official reprimand for filming a TikTok while he was on break with coworker Marceline Kelly. This surprised Woods, as the TikTok in question was uploaded to a private account in December 2021.
“The TikTok was taken months before it was talked about,” Chamberlain said. “You had to scroll back a long time to find that TikTok.”
Woods alleges Terrell assured him the TikTok was “nothing to worry about” as long as he would sign a statement for district manager David Gusler promising not to do it again. Kelly received a similar reprimand and request the same day. After both agreed to sign a statement, Terrell said she’d talk to Gusler. In the meantime, Woods removed the video.
Around the same time, some employees started their first push toward unionizing by asking their coworkers to sign union cards. Woods began passing them out on March 13. Three days later, Terrell took him aside in the middle of his shift and fired him on the spot. Later that week, she fired Kelly.
Woods was distraught, and said he found the move suspicious. Though Terrell had given the TikTok as reason for their dismissal, both Woods and Kelly were also involved in the union organizing campaign.
“I learned from some other [employees] at other stores that the district manager knew that people in the area had been trying to organize,” Woods said. “But they couldn’t pinpoint where it was. So he just happened to get me.”
Woods has since filed a wrongful termination suit against Starbucks with the support of the SBWU. Gusler did not respond to Queen City Nerve’s multiple requests for comment. Terrell said she had no comment.
Woods, who had been Partner of the Week at the time, was widely beloved by his colleagues. Some of his coworkers said they were outraged at his dismissal.
“Them firing Finn kind of sparked a fire in us,” Bowen said. “Finn was one of our favorite coworkers. He was our best closer. Once he got fired, we were like, ‘Oh, we’re doing this.'”
Unions see growth in NC despite obstacles
If there’s one message Ashley Hawkins, president of the Charlotte-Metrolina Labor Council, spends much of her time trying to get out, it is that unions are everywhere – even in North Carolina.
“Unions are amongst us,” she said. “We’re here. We’re your neighbors. If you want a union at your job, then you should have one, too.”
Hawkins has been involved in the labor movement since 2009, when she joined the stagehands union IATSE Local 322. And as a native Charlottean, she said she knows firsthand how frightening it can be to unionize in this state.
“Support is really, really meaningful. Especially in Charlotte and North Carolina because people have so many questions about unions,” Hawkins told Queen City Nerve. “It’s not something they understand.”
In 2021, the anti-poverty nonprofit Oxfam ranked North Carolina as the worst state for labor rights in the United States, citing several legal practices. North Carolina is an at-will state, meaning bosses can fire employees without warning or just cause. Under the state’s right-to-work law, employees can choose not to pay union dues while still reaping the benefits of union bargaining, making it harder for unions to organize effectively.
North Carolina also has a ban on public sector bargaining. Municipal employees like garbage collectors and teachers cannot negotiate union contracts with public officials, meaning public workers have no way of enforcing their rights.
Despite the obstacles, private sector employees like the partners at Starbucks in Mallard Pointe or any other location are well within their rights to organize for a union, vote and negotiate a contract.
Paltry local worker protections make support from other unions vital to the movement, however, so when the North Carolina AFL-CIO told Hawkins about the April 4 rally at Mallard Pointe, she showed up with signs and shirts in solidarity.
Hawkins wasn’t the only one; dozens of other union organizers affiliated with the NC AFL-CIO visited the store that day, congratulating the baristas on going public and offering advice for future challenges.
“That’s something I feel like we try to do in the labor movement is give each other support and guidance,” Hawkins said. “We say, ‘Well, when we went through it, it went like this,’ or ‘I’d try this.’ Generally, that kind of support is very important, again especially in North Carolina … That one-on-one contact can be very important.”
Bowen thinks the public backing for a union could be a wake-up call for Starbucks management.
“Especially [at the] corporate level. I don’t think they understand how much we’re being supported by the public,” he said. “So using ‘Union YES!’ in the system really proves to them that it’s not just us that want this — it’s just the right thing to do.”
The Union YES! campaign is simple. Customers come in, order drinks under the name “Union YES!” then leave a good tip and words of encouragement for the baristas.
“Our system keeps all those names in it in case someone needs a refund,” Bowen said. “So management will see how many [Union Yes names] are in that system, and will see how pressing this work really is.”
Multiple local politicians, including Charlotte City Council member Braxton Winston and N.C. Rep. Terry Brown, have posted about the campaign on social media. Customers stop by daily asking how to support the union. Though Starbucks only takes tips in cash or through the app, employees said their tip jar has never been fuller.
“I was blown away by the amount of community support,” Chamberlain said. “It got me thinking of ideas I didn’t think were possible before.”
The next generation of labor activism
There’s certainly no shortage of imagination on the team. For the Mallard Pointe baristas, a seat at the table is more than just bargaining power, a union is a chance to make Starbucks more inclusive to everybody.
Starbucks is widely acclaimed for its diversity and pro-LGBTQ+ workplace practices, but Woods, who is transmasculine, claimed his workplace did not accommodate him or other trans partners.
“I would still receive plenty of transphobic comments,” he said. “The [general] manager would constantly call me ‘ma’am’ or use ‘she/her’ pronouns for me.”
Woods tried to make it obvious to his coworkers by wearing multiple pronoun pins and correcting them when they messed up, but sometimes that didn’t go well. He recalled one particularly frustrating shift manager who used the wrong pronouns and the wrong name.
“I would correct her, and she would say, ‘That’s what I said. I said Finn.’ And she would also misgender me, and I would correct her and she’d be like, ‘I didn’t say that,'” Woods said.
Woods said he and other trans employees brought up the issue during a staff meeting and Terrell apologized and promised to do better. But still, he said, people continued to misgender him.
“It was a bizarre situation,” he said. “I was misgendered every day on the job.”
Chamberlain, who is a transgender woman, also takes issue with Starbucks’ approach to trans inclusion. She was initially drawn to Starbucks due to its benefits for workers undergoing medical transition. Starbucks offers multiple tiers of health insurance plans covering gender-affirming procedures.
Once hired, however, Chamberlain learned the tier covering the care she needed would cost 10% of her paycheck, which she couldn’t afford given her current salary.
“I live completely independently from my family. I pay for all of my own things: my car insurance, my rent,” she said. “And that’s the case for the majority of the people at our store.”
The Mallard Pointe Starbucks and its workers’ fight for a union presents an interesting snapshot of what the next generation of Southern labor activists look like. Many Mallard Pointe partners, like Chamberlain and Bowen, are college students, while others are still teenagers.
Most of the organizers are marginalized in one way or another, whether by race, class or gender, originally drawn to Starbucks because of its inclusive image.
“But then you get in there, and you realize that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be,” Woods said. “You have these coworkers you love and you care about and it’s sad to see that they are still mistreated in this workplace where they were told that they were welcome.”
Still, employees at Mallard Pointe remain motivated to fight for change, and they have ideas for improving the store. Some of those ideas, like a $19 minimum wage for Mallard Pointe baristas, directly benefit employees. But the group doesn’t just keep baristas in mind. In their March 26 letter, they pointed out that a constantly flickering light fixture in the lobby presents a hazard to customers with epilepsy.
“It’s always been something that’s been really important to us, you know, to make sure everybody gets treated equally,” Woods said.
But before they can get to work, they have to file for a union election and secure votes from just over 30% of the staff. (Typically, organizers will try to get over 50% of the staff to be on the safe side.) Once they file, a majority of the bargaining unit must vote to form a union. From there, they will have to negotiate a contract with management.
The process will almost certainly take months, possibly years, but the baristas are in it for the long haul. Chamberlain said they’re close to securing their target percentage of 65%. The overwhelming response to the ongoing Union YES! campaign has driven them to keep pushing.
“I really do love working in the coffee industry, and I just want to be able to do the best job I can in the best conditions I can,” Bowen said. “So seeing so much support for us to be able to do what we want to do gives us a lot of hope for the future.”
And he has a message for other baristas considering a union: “Don’t be afraid to try fighting for the better work conditions that you know you deserve.”