Baristas at Seattle’s marquee Starbucks reassigned to make way for ‘Heritage Markets’ ahead of union vote


After her Tuesday shift at a downtown Seattle Starbucks, Katherine Van got a call from her manager.

No need to come back to the store at First Avenue and Pike Street tomorrow, her manager said, as Van recalled the evening call. She had a choice: either transfer to another store — taking a pay cut and facing possibly longer commutes — or leave Starbucks.

Van, 18, was one of nearly two dozen workers at the First and Pike store to receive such a call yesterday. Their workplace — a high-profile Starbucks cafe that Van and others had been working for weeks to unionize — was to be rebranded one of three “Heritage Markets” in the city as part of an initiative announced by the company Tuesday. The store’s new theme? Starbucks’ “present,” as opposed to the other stores’ themes of “past” and “future.”

Few of Van’s colleagues at First and Pike were selected to remain at the store after many reapplied for their positions, she said. They were reassigned and will start at new locations Friday. They will get paid for the days they did not work this week, said Van, who graduated earlier this month from University Prep high school.

The workers at First and Pike had petitioned to hold union elections later in June. It’s unclear whether that vote can go forward now that most partners have been reassigned to other stores, Van said. She added that, in her view, the Starbucks’ Heritage Market push seems aimed at blocking union movements.

At least 151 Starbucks stores across the country have unionized, according to the National Labor Relations Board. On Wednesday, the NLRB for the third time filed a complaint in federal court to stop Starbucks from interfering with unionization efforts.

Sarah Pappin, who works at a unionized Starbucks up the street from First Avenue and Pike Street, said that the Heritage Market push is a way for the company to protect against its three most important stores becoming unionized.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sometimes starts his day at the Pike Place Market store — also a famous destination for tourists promoted by the company as the “original” Starbucks. Schultz, the one-time presidential aspirant now in his third stint as the company’s chief executive, has argued unions will impose Starbucks’ relationship with its workers, whom the company calls partners.

Pappin says the reassignment of the current Starbucks partners is “an excuse for the company to be able to cherry-pick people out of the store that they think are pro-union and then fill it with anti-union partners.”

Starbucks has denied that claim. The Heritage Market project is not related to the labor unions, a Starbucks spokesperson said. It was created in response to worker feedback about wanting a closer connection with Starbucks’ history.

Described as a way of co-creating the Starbucks experience with partners, the Heritage Market stores will “represent the company’s historic past, present and its re-imagined future,” Starbucks said in a statement.

The company noted that the reapplication process was competitive. Workers at the Heritage stores will be responsible for coffee tastings with customers and work between the three stores. They will also receive a 3% to 5% raise.

Besides First and Pike, the Pike Place Market and First and University stores will also be made into Heritage Markets. Workers at those stores who were reassigned got the same calls as Van yesterday.

One of them was Noah DeBuhr, who works at the Pike Place Market location. DeBuhr said about a month ago Schultz himself met with workers at the store. Those who asked questions or spoke at that meeting were the ones who got reassigned, DeBuhr said.

DeBuhr said he was reassigned to a store in Seattle’s Northgate neighborhood. For him, that’ll mean a longer commute. He said he expects he’ll miss out on the summer raise partners get when stores are at their busiest.

“It’s just downright disrespectful,” DeBuhr said.

Workers who were not selected had the chance to say which stores they would like to be transferred to, though the decision was Starbucks’ to make.

Van said she felt upset after the call Tuesday. It felt too abrupt, and she did not get a chance to say a proper goodbye to the people she worked alongside, she said.

“We were so close, like family,” Van said.

A company spokesperson said Starbucks took the workers’ needs into account when reassigning them.

Dmitri Iglitzin, the attorney working with individual unions-affiliated Workers United, said they are still considering their responses to the changes.

With the Heritage Market, Starbucks is pushing for a different form of union elections, Pappin said. Instead of working at single stores, the Heritage Market model will see partners shifting between three stores. That means union elections will happen at all three stores at once, if they happen at all, she said.

Pappin said the Heritage Market model could imperil the future of the union efforts nationwide.

“If they get away with this here,” she said, “they really are just going to do this everywhere.”

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