NC Starbucks Workers Join Push for Unions Across the South

People march during a protest in support of Amazon and Starbucks workers in New York City on November 26, 2021. (Yuki Iwamura/AFP via Getty Images)

By Emiene Wright

April 7, 2022

The coffee giant’s employees in Charlotte rallied for a union this week, joining Greenville and Raleigh in organizing for greater protections and adding to the growing movement for labor rights across the South and beyond.

In North Carolina, unions have long been suppressed. State law bans collective bargaining in the public sector, and compared to states without the law, “right to work” culture means North Carolina employees earn less, have less access to healthcare, higher incidents of on-the-job injuries and cannot be compelled to join a union as a condition of employment.

But service workers are moving to change that.

Workers at a Charlotte Starbucks held a rally Monday in attempts to unionize. Patrons were told to show support by placing orders under the name “Union Yes.”

In North Carolina, the average barista makes $11 an hour, or a full-time salary of $22,880. North Carolina’s living wage – how much it takes to support a household – is $38.01 an hour for an adult with two children, according to MIT researchers. A single person needs to make $14.72 an hour at minimum, C&P reported.

This year, more than half of the states raised their minimum wage to $15. North Carolina was not among them.

Workers United is helping unionizing efforts in at least 40 Starbucks locations across the South, including a Greenville Starbucks, which will hold a union vote by mail May 2, and a Raleigh Starbucks whose workers will decide over Zoom May 3.

Starbucks stores across the country have seen employees attempt to unionize with nearly 200 stores petitioning for union elections, according to NPR. Employees at a Knoxville, Tenn. shop were the first in the South to vote in favor of a union, last month. The company is contesting the vote.

Unions Resurgent

Starbucks employees are not alone. There has been a wave of renewed enthusiasm for unionizing at high-profile companies like Starbucks and Amazon across the nation. Amazon workers in Staten Island, NY established the company’s first union in the nation last week, and the union is already counseling workers at 50 warehouses domestically and internationally.

“If I can lead us to victory over Amazon, what’s stopping anybody in this country from organizing their workplace? Nothing,” Chris Smalls, president of Amazon Labor Union, told NPR. “People got to get out of that mentality of, ‘Oh, let me just quit my job.’ Because when you quit your job, guess what? They hire somebody else… The system doesn’t get fixed by doing that.”

Amazon’s $200 million, multi-story facility on the west side of Charlotte is the biggest warehouse in North Carolina. Complaints about conditions at Amazon CLT4 abound, but workers fear retaliation for going on record.

A current employee at CLT4 said staffers can be written up for “time off task,” or being away from their station, if they use the lavatory for more than a few minutes. At 855,000 square feet, the facility is huge and restrooms can be far from the station where a worker is assigned. Add in 5,000 employees and only two 30-minute breaks (one unpaid) per 10-hour shift, during which they are required to clock in and out, and conditions are ripe for abuse.

“I’m scared to take my medicine there. I’m scared to drink water, because I’m scared to go to the bathroom,” the employee told C&P. “I shouldn’t be scared to drink water, something I need every day.”


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