Food and Farm Labor

Young People Are Feeding the Effort to Unionize Food Service Workers

Published by
Annie Sciacca

A version of this article originally appeared in the October issue of the Deep Dish, our monthly newsletter for members. Become a member today to receive the next issue.

When Fern Potter took a job at a Starbucks in Louisville, Kentucky, they weren’t intending to unionize the store. Potter, 19, had just left a job at a Chipotle and was simply looking for another job. After they were hired as a shift leader, they learned that if they wanted healthcare or better wages, unionizing might be a path to make change. “Once I got there, I realized that things needed to be changed and fixed,” Potter said.

Inspired by the wave of organizing that burst into public view with the unionizing of stores in Buffalo, New York, in 2021, Potter called up the Starbucks Workers United campaign and began to mobilize their Louisville colleagues. In May, the store’s employees became the first certified Starbucks union in Kentucky.

Potter is one of the many young people joining a wave of unionization efforts in food service. In the last year, 240 Starbucks stores have unionized. Since then, workers have voted to unionize at Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, and even at the cafeterias that fuel tech giants like Google.

“I think people have been angry for a long time, but before . . . workers would just go with it,” Potter said. “I think part of it is COVID—people were looking around at structures that exist thinking, ‘It could be better.’”

Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, said young people have played a key role in the current wave of service industry unionization. “This sector has not historically been highly unionized,” Wong told Civil Eats. “But in the last year or so, there has been significant growth in the organizing at Starbucks and in fast food restaurants, and many of these campaigns have been led by young workers.”

Like Potter, Wong sees the pandemic as a catalyst. “All of these so-called essential workers are in the types of jobs where you have to show up, be in front of customers, and many of the workers were concerned that they were in environments that were unsafe, with high rates of infection,” Wong said. “So, in spite of the fact they are called essential workers, they were being treated like anything but.”

“In the last year or so, there has been significant growth in the organizing at Starbucks and in fast food restaurants, and many of these campaigns have been led by young workers.”

In 2021, just over 10 percent of workers in the U.S. belonged to unions, compared to 20 percent in 1983. Wong said that while there used to be more union representation in the hospitality and restaurant industries in major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, it declined in part because of the expansion of fast food service, which offers low wages and few benefits.

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“The expectation was that these weren’t going to be long-term jobs,” Wong said. But that appears to be changing, thanks to the efforts of the new unions.

Riley VanDelinder, an 18-year-old Starbucks employee based in Eugene, Oregon, said that seeing large companies pay out so-called hazard pay early in the pandemic without taking much of a hit to their profit margins was illuminating. It bespoke a greed and disinterest in workers. “Why not just pay those wages all the time?” VanDelinder asked.

VanDelinder started trying to unionize the Eugene Starbucks store fresh out of high school with little work experience. That perspective, plus a healthy dose of teenage rebellion, came in handy.

“I wasn’t used to bad bosses or bad work conditions,” they explained. “I was a stubborn teenager—I still very much am a stubborn teenager. I was able to push back and get other people to push back.

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Annie Sciacca

Annie Sciacca is a freelance investigative reporter and researcher whose work has appeared in The Imprint and other publications. She also teaches journalism at Contra Costa College. Prior to that, she worked at the East Bay Times and San Jose Mercury News, the daily newspapers under Bay Area News Group, covering government, criminal justice, schools business and the economy and many statewide breaking news events.

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Annie Sciacca

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