A current student at the University of Washington, Brenna Nendel is also a Starbucks employee who has taken part in recent unionization efforts at the coffee giant. On May 27th, 2022, Brenna's store - Eastlake Starbucks in Seattle - became the 100th unionized Starbucks location in a unanimous vote after a campaign that included a three-day strike.
Brenna spoke to the Harry Bridges Center recently about her experiences and how Labor Studies classes have helped make sense of them.
Bridges Center: How did the plan to unionize start at your location? What did workers initially think when the plan was proposed?
BN: The plan to unionize began with just discussions amongst ourselves at work. Conversation really began with the store in Buffalo, NY, as we heard the news of their process and eventual victory. As soon as they won, customers started bringing it up with us. I remember one guy told me that Seattle would be next because we are a union town, and he was very excited for us. Then, our (then) District Manager sent an email addressing conversations occurring in other stores in the district about unionizing. It outlined a request that instead of voting to unionize store by store, we would do so on a district level. This was an obvious ploy to end all chances for mass unionization from the start because we would have no real relationships with the partners in other stores and no real chance to discuss with each other the pros and cons of unionizing.
The request never became more than that, but ironically, this only started a deeper involvement and more questions among the partners at Eastlake. In the really early mornings, the openers always chat (we actually have very deep conversations at 5 am), and for a while, we would discuss why Buffalo unionized, what it would mean for us to do the same, and what we would gain from it. But the plan to unionize actually came into fruition when each partner at our store was scheduled to have two-on-one or three-on-one conversations with our manager, district manager, and district managers from other stores. It felt scary, and each meeting was just a way for Starbucks to say, “Look at all these amazing things we already gave you! Why would you want that to change?” This made us all begin to talk, and we eventually all met on Zoom after hours, expressing our concerns and the pros and cons of unionizing. From the get-go, there was a lot of consensus on our position and desire to go through with it.
Bridges Center: Were there workers that seemed unsure at first? If so, how did you address these concerns?
BN: Before we even had our first Zoom meeting, two amazing partners, a barista named Chloe Bennett and a shift supervisor, Myra Maza, reached out to each of us individually and asked how we were feeling about everything. From the beginning, we discussed in Zoom meetings after hours whether or not we even wanted to have a conversation about unionizing. They scheduled a meeting with one of Chloe’s friends, Sarah, who was working at the 5th and Pike location to unionize their store, and a member of Workers United, to ask questions. They asked each of us to send them questions we have about unionizing. They asked those questions, took note of the answers, and came to us with a how-to-unionize packet from the partners in Buffalo, that educated us on our rights and the things that Starbucks cannot do, even if they threaten to.
This helped us feel very confident and aware of what might happen when we began the process of unionizing. It gave us a chance to discuss, in-depth, whether we even wanted to try to unionize, and then the space to continue the process.
Bridges Center: How do you feel about your location becoming the 100th unionized store? What do you think this means for other locations?
BN: Being the 100th store to unionize is amazing. I felt immense relief as each ballot was read at the NLRB meeting, and I am so proud of my store for the work and the hardships we had to endure to get here. One of my fellow partners said that once we filed the petition to unionize, it became clear exactly why we needed to do so. Over half of the store has been fired or quit because of the conditions of our store since we began this process, and there is a sadness in this victory as well, because the people that I became so close to through the chaos since March are now gone, and will not reap the benefits to come.
I think that our victory will spread like wildfire. The union-busting techniques that Starbucks employed to make us lose the election backfired on them, hard. Eastlake is so short on labor right now that we close 3 hours early and never open on Sundays. People are continuing to quit, and the store is drowning, all a result of the treatment that we, the human beings Starbucks employs, had to endure unjustly because a small local union is such a threat to a multinational corporation. But seeing how horribly the tactics have failed, I am hopeful that other stores will not have to be treated the same way. Further, we can help them learn from our own mistakes, as workers, and what to look out for that will leave a person vulnerable to being fired or reprimanded. Eastlake’s victory on Lake Union will only help more baristas and partners fight for themselves and their workplace.
Bridges Center: What expectations do you have for management now that your store has unionized? Do you think these expectations will be met?
BN: At the moment, I do not have any expectations at all. During this process, our District Manager was replaced by a new, young guy who seems super nice and is trying to learn everyone’s name. We have not received much of a response from our management, other than a short letter from someone I have never heard of announcing that we voted to unionize. Neither my manager nor the new DM has mentioned anything about the union. But even since the vote, tensions in the store have decreased significantly. I think we are all relieved it is over, and hopefully, we can eliminate the adversarial relationship that formed between barista and manager during this process, and work together to create a store that we all, barista, supervisor, and management, want to be our “third place.”
Bridges Center: Has your education at the University of Washington played a role in your unionization efforts?
BN: UW has definitely helped me understand the importance of unionizing and social movements. Winter quarter, I took Human Rights in Latin America with Angelina Godoy, and we discussed what it means to stand in solidarity with someone. We could not stop my coworkers from being fired. But striking, telling Starbucks that we will not put up with their bullshit, and doing it as a team, that is what really matters more than any quantifiable victory.
Solidarity is a major theme of the labor movement, and my classes at UW taught me that standing in solidarity for someone is a success in itself, even when the movement itself fails.
Bridges Center: What outcomes would you like to see in the labor movement in your area? Do you think some of these have been achieved already?
BN: One thing I would like to see is for younger people to be educated and understand the importance and function of unions. As we unionized, we actually got a lot of support from older people (50s and up) who had been members of unions and the labor movement decades ago. However, millennial-aged people and younger were actually quite hostile toward us and our unionizing effort, especially when we were striking. I think more people are talking about unions and their purpose now that Amazon and Starbucks are in the news so much, but I think there is still a long way to go. One of them told us that unions were a ‘cartel,’ and another expressed that if we wanted more money, we should get a real job.
I hope that the efforts of Starbucks partners in our area will help people see that even people in the service industry, working at Starbucks, deserve fair working conditions, and the ability to survive off of one job, even if it isn’t working in a comfortable office at a ‘real job.’
Bridges Center: How did you feel participating in the strike? What was going through your mind at the time?
BN: The strike was very, very tiring. I walked (according to my watch) 15 miles in a tiny circle from 6 am to 2 pm. But it was so rewarding. I felt very supported by and proud of my fellow baristas, and the energy of the group was high and happy. The Eastlake community rallied around us, and our regulars kept bringing us food and coffee, helping us stay energized. Afterward, at the restaurant next door, Pecado Bueno, one of the workers brought us all shots, saying, “to unions!”
We were all willing to sacrifice our jobs, and many people's livelihoods, all in solidarity with two of our favorite coworkers who were fired unjustly. I had never felt so supported, proud, and amazed by a group of people in my life.