More than a thousand Starbucks employees across the nation, including some in Montclair, went on strike Thursday, Nov. 17, during one of the company's busiest business days – Red Cup Day. 

At the Church Street Starbucks in Montclair, about a dozen employees marched outside the store between 7 a.m. and noon, drawing news crews from TV stations in New York. The pickets chanted with megaphones and carried signs that read “No Bean-efits, No Coffee” and “No Contract, No Coffee.” They demanded change for the newly unionized store at 40 South Park Street and contract negotiations with the company. 

“We honestly had the idea floating around our heads, ever since we just unionized, because the conditions in our work environment have consistently been terrible,” 24 year-old barista James Cruz said referring to the strike. “Our managers really do not give us any support whatsoever, as well as being very discriminatory toward the needs of some of our partners.” (Starbucks refers to employees as partners.)

Starbucks managers in the area have accused of discriminating against employees based on race and disabilities, Cruz said. He added that he had been subjected to mental health discrimination. The ongoing struggles led the team, and other teams across the country, to organize Thursday’s “Red Cup Rebellion” strike. 

From left: Brianna, Jenissa Vargan and Laura Rosario (KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
From left: Brianna, Jenissa Vargan and Laura Rosario (KATE ALBRIGHT/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

Red Cup Day is a “massive headache” from an employee standpoint, Cruz said. This day is somewhat of a “holiday” for the company, where the store gives out free, limited-edition reusable cups. The demand for the special red cups often brings in a heavy flow of customers, resulting in a chaotic work environment.

Cruz remembered last year’s Red Cup Day, when he said he experienced problems as an employee at a different Starbucks location. With limited staff, and a limited number of red cups, he said the majority of the day was spent dealing with customers who demanded cups and became angry when told that they had missed out. 

“Honestly, the Red Cup Days, I understand it's like an advertisement thing, and it's a thing that makes them money, but honestly, they do not give us enough support, nor enough payment, to really handle that level of labor,” Cruz said. “Not to mention, a lot of us are expected to keep a smile while we're struggling and to keep conversations with customers. As much as I love doing that, it's very hard when you're being worked to the brink.”

This Red Cup Day, the Church Street Starbucks remained open. However, with the majority of the team’s baristas on strike, the company called in a group of district managers to work as baristas for the day. 

“We are aware that union demonstrations are scheduled at a small number of our U.S. company-owned stores,” a Starbucks spokesperson said via email. “In those locations where partners choose to participate, we respect their right to engage in lawful protest activity – though our focus has been, and continues to be, on uplifting the Starbucks experience for our partners and customers.” 

Since unionizing with Starbucks Workers United in August, the Church Street Starbucks has been fighting for better work conditions, including better training for employees, respectful management and adequate equipment. However, Cruz said Starbucks had failed to come to the negotiating table and had become even more aggressive and hostile toward unionized branches. 

“The cat is out the bag, you know, everyone knows that the company’s union busting and I don't think they're even trying anymore to cover it up,” Cruz said, “and if they are, they're doing a very poor job.” 

The Church Street Starbucks has a written proposal they would like to go over with the company. It includes policies for employee safety, employee health and the reaffirmation of multiple existing Starbucks policies, like anti-discrimination, which Cruz said are rarely enforced.   

“A lot of these things are in their policies, but are not legally pressable,” Cruz said. “They very frequently break a lot of their policies for the sake of speeding up situations or keeping employees in line.” 

Recently, when a dispute arose over scheduling, Starbucks agreed to sit down and negotiate with the store on these policies, and employees scheduled time off to attend, Cruz said. But Starbucks canceled the meeting at the last minute, leaving employees without pay on a day they could have worked. 

“We have to schedule days off a week in advance for things and most of us scheduled days off on that day,” Cruz said. “We missed out on an entire day of working primarily because the company just decided they wanted to not negotiate with us last minute.” 

When asked about the negotiation conflict, a Starbucks spokesperson said via email that the company remains, “committed to all partners and will continue to work together, side-by-side, to make Starbucks a company that works for everyone.” 

The spokesperson continued, “In those stores where partners have elected union-representation, we have been willing and continue to urge the union to meet us at the bargaining table to move the process forward in good faith.” 

Since unionizing, the Church Street Starbucks has been in touch with other Montclair locations, including the team in Upper Montclair. Cruz said it was unclear whether that team would pursue unionization. 

The Church Street team hopes that the “Red Cup Rebellion” pushes Starbucks toward the negotiation table and that the company follows through with its policies and promises. 

“Essentially, it’s the promises that they made, plus the ones we need, and we're trying to force them to stick to it,” Cruz said. “The only way to accountability when it comes to this company, is if there's an agreement that they have to follow.”