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These Philly baristas are taking on Starbucks in a fledgling worker movement

What started as a mission to get their manager fired has turned into an organizing campaign across multiple stores in Philadelphia. But can these baristas really get the mega-corporation to change?

TJ Bussiere, second from left, hands district manager Brian Dragone, far left, an "unfair labor practice" complaint at the Starbucks at Broad and Washington Avenue in Philadelphia on Monday, November 25, 2019. Bussiere and Echo Nowakowska (right), who both work at the Starbucks pictured, led a delegation of Starbucks workers and their supporters to deliver the complaint.
TJ Bussiere, second from left, hands district manager Brian Dragone, far left, an "unfair labor practice" complaint at the Starbucks at Broad and Washington Avenue in Philadelphia on Monday, November 25, 2019. Bussiere and Echo Nowakowska (right), who both work at the Starbucks pictured, led a delegation of Starbucks workers and their supporters to deliver the complaint.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

On a hot day in late July, with a dozen supporters standing behind him and filming the encounter on their phones, TJ Bussiere marched into the Starbucks at Broad and Washington where he worked, looked his manager in the face, and demanded she resign.

The group had other demands, too, which the 20-year-old barista read out loud, while his manager looked on, deadpan: Managers at Broad and Washington must be held accountable for “discriminatory practices” against workers of color and LGBTQ workers. The store must immediately implement the city’s new law mandating more consistent schedules for workers. And managers must inform workers of their rights, under Philadelphia law, to those schedules and paid sick leave.

Videos of the confrontation instantly went up on social media under the hashtag #justiceforbroadandwashington.

Less than two weeks later, after a series of higher-level Starbucks officials descended on the store, the manager in question was no longer with Starbucks.

It was a victory, sure. But Bussiere and his colleagues were just getting started.

Four months later, their vision has broadened beyond the store at Broad and Washington. Bussiere and fellow barista Echo Nowakowska say they’re meeting weekly with other Philly Starbucks workers to discuss workplace issues — scheduling, discipline, and dealing with people’s emotions, aka emotional labor — and how they can work together to demand Starbucks make changes.

“They say that Starbucks is all about ‘customer connection,’” said Nowakowska, 26. “We’re the ones that create that.” And yet, she said, “There’s no way for us to actually have respect. There’s no security in our jobs.”

Even in this time of increased worker activism and a push for more labor rights for the low-wage workers at big-box chains, the Starbucks workers’ organizing is unusual: They lack the institutional support of a traditional union or a labor group. There’s no paid organizer running the show; they’re doing it themselves. And they’re doing it in a sector that experts say is nearly impossible to organize.

But can a ragtag group of young baristas, as social media savvy and informed on their labor rights as they may be, really move a mega-corporation with a long track record of squashing worker organizing? It’s a long shot. But some say what the group has already accomplished is impressive and a sign of things to come.

What drove them to organize

Nowakowska, a former community organizer who dropped out of Temple University because she couldn’t afford it, started working at the high-volume Starbucks at the Marriott Downtown last December. She chose Starbucks because of its reputation for being LGBTQ-friendly. That was important to Nowakowska, who’s trans, especially at the time as she was just starting to transition.

It was good at first, she said. It was when she got transferred to the new Broad and Washington store a month later that things took a turn.

A few weeks in at the store, her hours were cut from 30 to 20 a week, even though she was hired for full-time hours. She’d make up the difference by picking up hours at other locations, but they were always last-minute because she was covering shifts of workers who had called out. If she wasn’t available to cover the shift, she said, she wouldn’t get asked again. So she had to be available at all times.

And then there was the harassment from customers, Nowakowska said, such as those who insisted on calling her a man, as her manager just watched. Sometimes the manager gave the customer in question a “recovery card” — a Starbucks gift card offered to customers as a courtesy.

Nowakowska’s issues aren’t unusual. Retail and fast-food chains are notorious for scheduling practices that wreak havoc on workers’ lives. It’s why advocates launched campaigns around the country to mandate more consistent schedules. Starbucks was held up as an early example of the problem, as detailed by a 2014 New York Times investigation. The company subsequently vowed to improve its policies.

Trans workers, especially those who work in service jobs, have said that customer abuse is rampant.

» READ MORE: Why the Philadelphia airport hosted a job fair for trans and nonbinary people

At Broad and Washington, Nowakowska met Bussiere, who is also trans, and other workers who had complaints, such as Diamond “Luna” Fennell, a 25-year-old shift supervisor who often worked closing shifts at the Broad and Washington store. She said it seemed as if Starbucks cared more about its customers than its workers. There was a customer who’d come in late at night and yell sexual things to the women working, she said, and her manager never did anything about it after she reported it. And there was the time Fennell called in sick and her manager told her she had to find someone to cover her shift — which Fennell, who has since left Starbucks, later learned is against Philadelphia’s paid sick leave law.

The workers didn’t trust the Starbucks process, which involved reporting issues to a district manager or to a human resources hotline. So they decided that the only way to get something done was to go public.

“We wanted to do something splashy and attention-getting,” Bussiere said, “so Starbucks couldn’t just sweep it under the rug.”

There was another reason it made sense to go public: Starbucks has been on the defensive after its long-held image as a progressive company took a beating when video of the arrests of two black men at a Rittenhouse Square Starbucks went viral last year. The corporation embarked on an apology tour, shutting down all its stores to host unconscious-bias training for workers.

» READ MORE: Ex-Philly Starbucks director claims she was fired following wrongful arrests because she’s white

After they marched on the store, it was clear that they had gotten the attention of Starbucks.

“Partner resources” officials showed up at Broad and Washington to hold one-on-one meetings with the workers. They told the workers that dialogue, not demands, was Starbucks’ culture. Still, they promised to look into the workers’ issues. Then, workers said, they suddenly started getting the hours they requested. Starbucks’ higher-ups sent gift baskets to the more than 30 stores in Philadelphia — a Starbucks spokesperson said the gift baskets were unrelated. And their manager was replaced.

Starbucks declined to comment on specifics, though it did confirm that the manager at Broad and Washington was no longer with the company. Starbucks said a third-party investigator “did not substantiate claims of discrimination” but would not elaborate on the manager’s departure.

In a statement, spokesperson Bailey Adkins said, “We pride ourselves on creating an environment where partners are empowered to address concerns in the workplace through direct, two-way dialogue with their managers.” She added: “We are committed to creating an inclusive, supportive, and safe work environment. We will work directly with partners to address any concerns and support their rights to discuss terms and conditions of employment.”

What’s next

Since the confrontation in July, the Broad and Washington crew has held one other public demonstration, on the Monday before Thanksgiving. About 20 people marched into the store to deliver the unfair labor practice they filed — a formal government complaint in which they alleged retaliation for organizing. Bussiere and Nowakowska have received multiple write-ups over the last few months for being late and for not properly “connecting with customers.” They believe they will soon be fired.

They say they’ll continue to organize. The Broad and Washington crew won’t say that they’re trying to form a union — only that they’ll do whatever it takes to get their demands met.

Given that there are more than 500 Starbucks employees in Philadelphia, the fledgling group is still small.

And none of the company’s 191,000 employees in the U.S. is represented by a union, a spokesperson said. In 2004, Starbucks aggressively fought a union campaign in New York, and an administrative law judge ruled that the corporation had broken the law in its counter-campaign, including firing the lead union organizer. Later, a federal judge ruled that the firing was performance-related.

Bussiere says getting past the sense of powerlessness is the hardest part.

“People at Starbucks feel so isolated. They can’t wrap their head around the idea of strength in numbers, that low wage workers can have power over the salaried people that can fire and hire them,” he said.

It’s why Dermot Delude-Dix, an organizer with service workers union Unite Here in Philadelphia, says what they’ve been able to accomplish is already a feat: “It’s very brave what this group of workers is doing,” he said, “talking to workers at other stores, taking on management in such a public way.”

And by going public with their efforts, they could already be setting off a wave, said Jane McAlevey, a veteran labor organizer and senior policy fellow at the University of California-Berkeley’s Labor Center.

“The more workers see others workers engaging in collective action and winning,” she said, “the more it’s going to happen.”