By PAULINO PEREIRA
On June 4, 2022, Starbucks workers on Maple Street in New Orleans made history. They voted 11-1 to form a union through the Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), making it the first Starbucks union in the state of Louisiana. SBWU workers have been organizing across the country winning union elections at 150+ stores in just six months in places like Buffalo, N.Y., Austin, Tex., and Birmingham, Ala., just to name a few. SBWU members have engaged in protests, rallies, and other collective actions to fight for union representation. In addition, they have been organizing with other workers and organizations to build networks of solidarity across the country.
Here in Louisiana, SBWU members and supporters from the New Orleans Workers Assembly (NOWA), a local affiliate of the Southern Workers Assembly, have been actively supporting the unionization campaign. While this renewed worker militancy has led to important victories, Starbucks has responded with repression by firing union organizers, and even closing newly organized stores. In order to learn more about the victories and challenges, Workers’ Voice interviewed SBWU organizing committee member Billie Nyx and Mickey Davis from the NOWA.
Workers’ Voice: What is the New Orleans Workers Assembly and what are its goals?
Mickey Davis: The Southern Workers Assembly regional network is made up of local unions, worker organizations, and organizing committees committed to building rank-and-file democratic social movement unionism as a foundation for organizing, uniting, and transforming labor power throughout the South. Locally, as the New Orleans Workers Assembly, we work to connect different sectors of workers to engage in real conversations around what we can do collectively to obtain and create a better world for the working-class and oppressed peoples. We believe if enough of us come together in unity as workers, then we can start to shift power and gain more worker control and democracy in the workplace and in our communities.
Creating a supportive and safe space for rank-and-file workers is something we pride ourselves on and is a huge part of our work. We seek to build a solidarity and fightback network, for rank-and-file workers to achieve a level of worker power through building organizations in all kinds of workplaces, uniting and learning together through the local assembly, and exercising our power through collective bargaining contracts with employers, workplace mobilizations, labor and community solidarity, and independent political action.
WV: How are you feeling after the union victory?
Billie Nyx: I feel really incredible right now and want to let everyone know about our union victory. It was so much work to win this, and while there was no question we would win, the day before the vote was very nerve racking.
WV: How has the New Orleans Workers Assembly supported its members forming a union at Starbucks?
MD: Once we heard of the want to vote to unionize at the Maple Street location, we immediately reached out to connect and collaborate with the lead organizer of the campaign. After talking and participating in solidarity sit-ins at the Maple street location, we started to help with additional outreach to other stores, working to build more of a solidarity network locally across multiple locations. We know workers’ bargaining power comes from the growth of the movement and the militant fightback of rank-and-file workers, so helping to connect more workers and continuing to grow the solidarity network is our main contribution to this work.
We currently have members who work at multiple Starbucks locations. Through our outreach we organized a Starbucks Workers Solidarity BBQ leading up to the union vote, to connect and strengthen relationships between Starbucks workers across the city. This, as we know, takes time and we are still currently leading this effort in bringing more workers into the space to learn, share, and build with one another in the struggle.
WV: Can you tell us about the day-to-day organizing efforts that it took to win your union?
BN: Well, everyone said that you first have to form an organizing committee. So that’s what we did. I asked if there were other co-workers who wanted to be part of it, and they asked what they would need to do. I wasn’t entirely certain, but I said that it was important for us to come together and organize if we really wanted to win a union. And so, a couple others joined me as part of the organizing committee. From there, we reached out to our co-workers and had one-on-one conversations explaining to them the benefits of a union. We also had to push back on a lot of misinformation that Starbucks was sharing with the workers.
WV: Could you discuss a bit about how you all organized and what types of activities, actions, and events you did?
MD: Several years back, one of our former members, Nath Clarke, played a key role in laying a foundation locally for building class consciousness and solidarity at Starbucks locations, most notably through a petition campaign at the Maple Street location in 2020, back when we were the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Alliance. Although our comrade has since passed, we wish to uplift the foundational work they laid and the seeds of solidarity they planted. A few of the remaining Maple Street workers that are still there knew Nath personally. So I definitely wanted to uplift and shout them out here.
Over the years we’ve organized rallies, marches, petition campaigns, and press conferences calling for improved working conditions for workers across New Orleans, specifically hospitality and service workers. Before getting word about the move to unionize at the Maple Street location, we held a solidarity action on Workers Power Day, Feb. 26, 2022, where we rallied and leafleted outside our local Starbucks on Elysian Fields, gaining support from workers and passing community members. We also joined the calls for Starbucks to immediately rehire the Memphis 7 and stop their racist union busting campaign.
WV: How did Starbucks respond to your organizing efforts?
BN: I was fired for organizing a union. Instead of stopping our efforts, the retaliation led my co-workers to be angry at management and they voiced support for me. During my one-on-one conversations, co-workers sent me their well-wishes and even threw me a surprise party. In addition, supporters sent donations so that I could make ends meet and cover rent. Now that we have a union, I’m hoping that we will be able to win my job back.
WV: What’s next now that you have won a union?
BN: I’m unsure of the specific protocols, but we are going to begin working on getting us a contract. The main issues are pay, staffing, sick and vacation leave, just cause disciplinary process, and job security. We have a big laundry list of other items that we will need to work on as we begin drafting a contract.
WV: Do you see yourselves part of a broader movement of young service sector workers who are fighting for union rights?
BN: Yes, we are a diverse group of workers, also with different life experiences, across different industries fighting for union rights. But it’s not just young people. At our job, for example, we had a co-worker older than us who had been a very vocal supporter of our union, and was able to help us and share information about unions. He would even wear the SBWU t-shirts to work and got in trouble for it and had to change shirts.
WV: How can other workers support SBWU moving forward?
BN: It’s very important that we build solidarity among workers and those who had been supporting us. At Maple Street, supporters can continue to order union strong drinks and be sure to tip the baristas. We will continue to post updates on our instagram (@sbworkersmaplestreet) and let folks know how to support!
Photo: SBWU local organizer Billie Nyx (center) following announcement of the pro-union vote at Maple Street on June 4. (Orlando Flores Jr. / Gulf States Newsroom)