Downtown Montclair Starbucks employees will decide this summer whether or not to join Starbucks Workers United, the coffee chain’s fast-growing union.

Since January, more than 186 stores nationwide have joined Workers United, and 310 stores have pending petitions for elections. According to the National Labor Relations Board database, this Friday, July 15, mail-in ballots for an election are due to be sent to eligible employees with a return date of Aug. 5. If the vote passes, the Church Street Starbucks (#13856), located at 40 South Park St., will be the fourth branch in the state to unionize, following Hamilton, Hopewell and Summit, which all voted to unionize in the spring.

In a letter to Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz, members of the store’s organizing committee said operations have been plagued by poorly working equipment, improper training and understaffing. According to 24 year-old James Cruz, Starbucks barista and member of the team’s organizing committee, the Church Street location has been suffering from these issues since the store reopened after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“We were dealing with a little bit of hardship at the time,” Cruz said. “Our manager was really new, she didn't really have much experience or much training. So, things were really rocky.”

He said recovering from the effects of the pandemic has been difficult and slow. 

“Staffing was very poor because a lot of people either quit or moved on to other things, and it's just been something that hasn't really recovered,” Cruz said.

Although Cruz admits work conditions have slightly improved in recent months, he and the team feel that the workplace has never been stable. 

According to the organizing committee’s letter, Starbucks Corporation has been hostile in dealing with workers seeking to organize, cutting hours in response to complaints of understaffing. Cruz feels as though the team’s concerns are not being taken seriously by upper management, stating they give the employee’s somewhat of a “cold shoulder.” 

When the organizing committee confronted corporate officials about its wish to enable digitized tipping, and how they believed the baristas would earn additional compensation with this format, the team was told that taxes would have to be taken out. This response didn’t make sense to the Church Street team as employees who receive tips and self-report them in their tax returns, according to Cruz. 

On a number of occasions, the team has also dealt with poorly-functioning equipment that failed to work after sitting unused for months during the pandemic shutdown. According to Cruz, at the time it took over a month to have repairs made. 

“They just seem very dismissive,” Cruz said.

One frequent customer, 50 year-old Adina Lundy, who visits the Church Street Starbucks on days when she teaches at the local YMCA, said that she has experienced some issues with their machine at checkout. 

“I've visited a number of Starbucks in recent memory where their register wasn't working, or my app didn't sync,” Dr. Lundy said. “So, I do see that that could definitely be a concern, because it has happened to me in this [Starbucks].” 

Cruz said that the team is also consistently overwhelmed attempting to manage the large influx of mobile orders with what he says is a small, understaffed team. Sometimes, he said, the employees are unable to close the store until well-passed the end of the night shift while attempting to finish up orders and close the store. 

The Church Street Starbucks team has tried addressing these concerns with local management at the location, Cruz said, they are equally stressed trying to solve the same workplace issues. 

“We do know that our manager was feeling the same kind of pressure that was going on in the store,” Cruz said, “but, from conversations that we have had with corporate management, they don't agree with us at all.” 

A Starbucks Corporate spokesperson said in email to Montclair Local that the company is listening and learning from their “partners [employees] in these stores as we always do across the country.” But the company believes the partnership is better without union involvement.

“From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed. We respect our partner’s right to organize and are committed to following the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] process,” the spokesperson said.

The desire to join Starbucks Workers United, according to Cruz, stems from the Church Street team’s hope to build an overall stronger connection with the company. And he believes unionizing will bring higher wages and better working conditions for employees. 

“We do really want to have a healthy and equal relationship with our management,” Cruz said. “We want to have our partners well-supported and get better wages that they deserve, because a lot of our partners really do put a lot of their time and energy into this job, and it kind of seems a little bit weird that they don't get paid for the amount of effort they put in.” 

Since the first U.S. Starbucks union was established in Buffalo, N.Y. last year, the company has noticed a need for progress and change. On Monday, July 11, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz published a letter sharing his new vision for the future of the company.  

“The Starbucks business as it is built today is not set up to fully satisfy the evolving behaviors, needs and expectations of our partners or customers. It is not designed for the future we aspire to for ourselves and the communities in which we serve,” Schultz said. “Today, we find ourselves in a position where we must modernize and transform the Starbucks experience in our stores and recreate an environment that is relevant, welcoming and safe, and where we uplift one another with dignity, respect and kindness.” 

Fellow Montclarians who’ve heard the possible unionization news in Montclair equally want to see the team reach their goals. 

“The staff here are very friendly and helpful,” Jim Kelly, longtime Montclair resident and frequent Church Street Starbucks customer, said. “They are very nice people, and I like the place. I hope they organize and get what they want.” 

Two dozen prominent elected officials in New Jersey also signed a letter in support of the organizing efforts, urging Starbucks to negotiate fairly with the employees and not impede organizing efforts.

“The Church Street Starbucks is in the heart of our community and should reflect the pro-union heart of our town’s values. The workers there deserve our support as they organize for a better workplace. They should be free of intimidation as they advocate for better wages and working conditions and more reliable scheduling," Montclair Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis said. “Corporate management needs to listen to these community members and treat them and their concerns with respect.” 

Although the unionization of the Church Street Starbucks is still reliant on an upcoming vote, Cruz is confident the team’s courage will lead the pathway for other Montclair Starbucks locations, such as the Upper Montclair Starbucks team, to make the same decision. 

“I feel like the others might follow suit,” Cruz said. “Sometimes the hardest step is the first one. Most people don't really think doing things like this are really possible until someone actually proves it.”