Peet’s Coffee Stores in California Work to Unionize With the Help of Starbucks Baristas

Workers at two Peet’s Coffee locations in Davis, California, have filed to unionize—inspired by the union effort at Starbucks stores across the country. Both stores filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board on Monday.

“We’re being expected to push past our limits constantly,” says Alyx Land, a pro-union worker at the north Davis store who has worked at Peet’s for five years. “I want me and my co-workers to be able to sustainably do our jobs, without burning out, without getting sick all the time.”

Since the pandemic, conditions at Peet’s have deteriorated, workers interviewed by The Daily Beast say. They cite bare-bones staffing, inconsistent work schedules, low pay, and a desire for more workplace democracy as the main issues behind the union effort.

In July, Land reached out via email to Starbucks Workers United, the group coordinating union efforts at over 260 Starbucks locations across the country, detailing issues at Peet’s stores and asking for help.

Tyler Keeling, who was part of a successful effort to unionize his Starbucks store in Lakewood, California, replied. Keeling became a contact point for Peet’s workers, advising them on how to organize their union efforts.

“Without that happening, I don’t think this would be happening,” Land said of Starbucks Workers United’s help. “They’re doing the ground-breaking stuff and we’re seeing the template for how it could be done.”

Some Peet’s Coffee stores in California are looking to unionize.

Zhang Peng

The new effort at Peet’s Coffee is significant because it is the first sign of union militancy spreading from Starbucks to other large coffee chains, says John Logan, a professor and director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State.

Numerous smaller chains and independent coffee shops have seen union efforts in the past two years, including efforts by workers at Collectivo, a Wisconsin-based roaster and cafe chain with five locations in Chicago, and SPoT Coffee, a coffee chain based in Buffalo, New York.

“Peet’s is much bigger than any of those,” Logan says. “I think it has the same potential to spread quite quickly, the same as the Starbucks campaign did.”

Peet’s Coffee began with one family-owned store in Berkeley, California, in the 1960s, before expanding across the state. In 2012, it was acquired by a German investment group, JAB Holding.

Peet’s is now a billion-dollar corporation, with 208 corporate locations across the United States. The majority of stores are still in California, where Peet’s is the state’s second-largest coffee retailer—its stores outnumbered only by Starbucks.

“I really like Peet’s. I wouldn’t work here for five years if I didn’t care about the Peet’s mission, “ says Land. “But I feel like Peet’s the company is getting further away from the ‘Peet’s values.’”

Peet’s Coffee now faces a choice, says Logan—they could copy Starbucks’ aggressive anti-union tactics, or take a different approach.

“They could set an example for the industry and set themselves apart from Starbucks,” Logan says. “They could distinguish themselves as a company that respects labor rights and workers’ right to choose.”

One way Peet’s could do this, workers say, would be to sign onto a set of “Non-Interference Election Principles.” These principles ask a company to recognize employees’ right to organize and agree not to retaliate against workers.

Starbucks Workers United has been helping Peet’s Coffee with moves to unionize.

Guy Smallman

Starbucks has so far refused to agree to these principles, despite requests from workers.

“We’re hopeful that the company will sign onto these principles of non-interference,” says Schroedter Kinman, a barista involved in unionizing efforts at the Peet’s store in downtown Davis. “We’ve seen a lot of foul play on behalf of Starbucks. Knowing the environment we’re in, it makes us cautious to put trust in the corporate levels of our company. But we really hope that corporate will sign onto these principles and help us get through this process. We think that it would be beneficial to the company.”

Starbucks has engaged in an aggressive anti-union campaign, firing 150 pro-union workers and breaking labor laws, according to Starbucks Workers United. The union has filed 447 unfair labor practice charges against the company with the NLRB.

In late November, Starbucks told workers it was closing down the first store to unionize in the chain’s hometown of Seattle, citing safety concerns at the location. In a statement, Starbucks Workers United called the closure “blatant retaliation” for union organizing. It is the fourth unionized Seattle store the company has closed down, the union said.

This week, the NLRB issued two decisions in complaints against Starbucks, finding the company had acted illegally in both cases. The board said that Starbucks broke the law when the company refused to bargain with the union at its roastery in Seattle, and that they had illegally fired a worker at a store in Great Neck, New York.

A striking Starbucks worker outside of a Starbucks coffee shop during a national strike on November 17 in San Francisco, California.

Justin Sullivan

In their most recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Starbucks outlined their thoughts on the unionization efforts in its stores.

“If a significant portion of our employees were to become unionized, our labor costs could increase and our business could be negatively affected,” they wrote. However, the company also noted that, “our wages and benefits programs may be insufficient to attract and retain the best talent,” and “our responses to any union organizing efforts could negatively impact how our brand is perceived and have adverse effects on our business.”

Starbucks CEO, billionaire and former candidate for president Howard Schultz, has been more outspoken. He’s suggested union activity at stores is the work of an “outside force that’s trying desperately to disrupt our company.” In June, Schultz told an event by The New York Times that he could not imagine a future for Starbucks with union involvement, “because we have a different view.”

“We highly value our team members and their dedication to the craft of coffee,” Peet’s Coffee said in a statement. “We have not received notification from the NLRB about any action. Our Davis Coffee bars are open and our employees are serving up extraordinary coffee to our valued customers.”

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