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Starbucks in Wilmington second in North Carolina to unionize

Michelle Eisen, a barista at the Buffalo, N.Y., Elmwood Starbucks location, helps the local Starbucks Workers United as they gather at a local union hall to cast votes on whether to unionize, on Feb. 16, 2022, in Mesa, Ariz.
Ross D. Franklin
Michelle Eisen, a barista at the Buffalo, N.Y., Elmwood Starbucks location, helps the local Starbucks Workers United as they gather at a local union hall to cast votes on whether to unionize, on Feb. 16, 2022, in Mesa, Ariz.

After announcing their plans to unionize in the spring, workers at the Starbucks on Middlesound Loop Road in Wilmington have voted to unionize this week. WHQR interviewed union co-organizer Haya Odeh about their successful vote.

The Starbucks Union for Middlesound Loop Road voted 16-10 in favor of unionizing on Tuesday, joining nearly 200 other unionized Starbucksshops around the country.

Kelly Kenoyer: Can you kind of tell me how you guys got started with this unionization effort?

Haya Odeh: My Co-organizer Chloe thought that after being shown several times that our voices seemed not to matter. We decided to unionize and get union representation.

KK: How old are you guys? Like, generally, what's the average age would you say of the employees at the Starbucks?

HO: I would say early 20s; like 22 might be the average age, or maybe 24.

KK: Wow, okay. So you guys are pretty young.

HO: Yeah, I'm 19.

KK: Cool. I mean, I think one of the things that's kind of stood out to me about places like Starbucks organizing is that it seems very much like a young person's game. I mean, I'm 28. And I feel like my generation, your generation, as well, are both very interested in unionization. So I guess I'm curious, what do you think about that kind of demographic angle?

HO: I think it was, I think it's the same demographic that first unionized like that giant uproar, I guess, 50-60 years ago. I guess they were also our age at the time. And I think it's common to see history repeat itself when it comes to the working class. Like after, like all this political stuff, pulling out of Afghanistan, the Russian-Ukraine conflict, and so on, and so forth. We've seen that like, it's affecting the global market, and just such a giant scale. And the cost of living in the United States is going up rapidly.

But wages staying stagnant seems to like also anger us a little bit, because these are billion-dollar corporations that couldn't give us higher wages that are already pocketing millions of dollars for their CEOs and corporate. Like you can't really only vote to find change, the working class has to like stand up together and get that change themselves. And I think that's why that giant demographic of young folks is like, we've seen so much in so little time, and we're really tired of it. So we're gonna do it ourselves.

KK: I know, the CEO has kind of said, well, look, I mean, we already give you these nice benefits, like why do you think it's appropriate to unionize? What would you say to that reaction that you're getting from corporate leadership?

HO: It's the bare minimum. I think it's the bare minimum to give us health insurance, to give us $15 an hour is bare minimum. I think it's the MIT living wage index, I can't remember off the top of my head, if it's that or another living wage index. I think for Wilmington, North Carolina, it's $14.26 an hour. And so Wilmington, right now, Wilmington partners are making $15 just on the cusp of like a living wage. Which was only implemented literally just three weeks ago. So beforehand it was like a barista was making $12 or $13 an hour. And I think it's just Howard Schultz and corporate, I think they need to understand that they have this company because of our labor, and we want a seat at the table that we built with our labor.

[Editor’s note: The MIT living wage for Wilmington, NC for a single adult is higher than that: it’s now $16.30 an hour.]

KK: What is next, what are you asking for now that you are unionized?

HO: I would say, an increase every year based on the living index. Because, if next year, we suddenly need to make $17 an hour to live in Wilmington, North Carolina partners, and Wilmington needs to make that living wage to live.

I know that the National Committee of Starbucks Workers United is working on like a national template, sort of list of demands that every partner needs. And then from there, it will be broken down to, well, the state can have this or then the city can have this or like a certain store can have this. I want my hours reinstated, and I would like to be protected to get rid of the at will clause. So we will no longer be at-will employees, as well as having that living wage.

KK: Do you have advice to other folks who might be considering unionizing their own workplaces in, you know, a right to work state like North Carolina, we're one of the least unionized states in the country. I think we're second least after South Carolina. So I know there's particular challenges here. Do you have advice for folks who are considering it for themselves?

HO: Yeah. Don't be afraid. The law is on your side. And know who to talk to, know who to trust. You can't tell management anything first. They are paid to basically shut it down, especially in places like Amazon or even nursing unions as well. We all deserve more than what we're getting. Especially with the labor we are providing, no matter what industry you work in. And more importantly, the people around you probably think the same thing as well. It's a risk that needs to be taken. And you have to make that first step.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.