Anna Sale: What's like when somebody orders something, what's the most annoying thing to have to make? When you're like, "Ugh, God?"
Jacob Lawson: Any drink with sweet cream foam
Benjamin South: It's all cold drinks with sweet cream on top.
Laila Dalton: A frappuccino.
Jacob Lawson: They put it on everything. Everything.
This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...
...and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
When we called Jacob Lawson, a 23-year-old Starbucks shift supervisor from Utah, he was on his way to another Starbucks store in Idaho to help them start a union.
Jacob: It's not too far from Utah. I mean it's 150 miles, but it's-- I've driven farther to go help a store unionize.
When we reached 19-year-old Laila Dalton, a former Starbucks employee who says she was fired for union activity, she had flown from Arizona to Wisconsin to visit another fired employee for moral support.
Laila: My first instinct is, let me reach out to them, see how they're doing, 'cause I know- I know exactly how I felt when I got fired.
By now, you've probably heard that the Starbucks union is having a moment, as are unions in general. Maybe you've even heard the term "hot labor summer" floating around on social media.
The National Labor Relations Board says petitions to file unions have risen over 50% in the past year. And Starbucks makes up nearly a quarter of new petitions since January of 2021. The movement is pretty collaborative, made up of mostly young people who are talking to each other across stores, and sharing organizing tactics. So we invited a few of these Starbucks workers from different parts of the country to tell us what their experience has been like.
Jacob: I've-I've been up for 13 hours. I'm sorry. I look horrible.
Anna: Oh, that's okay. I love the-- The tuft is beautiful, Jacob. I like that.
Jacob: Thank you. Thank you.
Anna: [laughs] And Laila, are you Zooming in from a cave?
Laila: I'm in my girl cave, I guess you could call it.
Benjamin: I thought that was a Starbucks break room.
There was Jacob Lawson.
Jacob: I work at the Cottonwood Heights Starbucks location in Utah, and I, uh, I'm a shift supervisor as well. I'm there literally five days a week.
And Laila Dalton.
Laila: I am in Scottsdale, Arizona, and I was the lead organizer who got fired. Um, in my opinion, it was illegal.
And Benjamin South, who's 33.
Benjamin: I live in Ithaca, New York, and I'm a shift supervisor as well.
When we spoke on a Friday afternoon in early June, they were each going through different turns in the unionizing story. Some victories, some defeats, and some very real consequences of going up against a multi-billion dollar company.
Anna: Jacob, uh, so, you-- what is going on in your store? You've been part of an organizing effort. What happened today?
Jacob: Oh, so fun fact, we just won our union today. Um, our vote was counted. It was 11 to 6. And you know, I want to talk about that because I was expecting it to be like more close to unanimous, but for some reason they counted all the no votes first. So it was just like six no votes that I was like, "Oh my God." And I was, uh, hitting rock bottom for a second, and then all of a sudden, all the yes votes came out. It was an immense relief. Um, it's been very, very scary with like our management's behavior. And you know, like about six weeks ago, our manager just stopped showing up, and they've just been having alternating managers come in, and union bust here and there, you know.
The manager that stopped showing up was Jacob's friend before the union effort started. They used to hang out outside of work. He was invited to her wedding.
Jacob: Like we were really close with our manager. Like our store was perfect.
But things changed. The environment got heated. His manager started advising everyone to vote no, and warned that they could lose benefits if they joined a union.
Jacob: I think she got a lot of corporate pressure, you know, and she was scared.
And then they stopped talking.
Jacob: I start hearing that she is talking behind my back, uh, while I'm not at the store, and so I start distancing myself.
Anna: So, Jacob, you just said union bust. I want to say a Starbucks spokesman told the New York Times that the company is not anti-union, but pro-partner, which is how it refers to its employees, and also said it has historically made changes in response to input from workers making the union unnecessary. Um, but Jacob, can you-- I want to be able to picture, you're describing watching vote totals come in. Like where did you do that? How did that work?
Jacob: So we did it in the lobby of the store. I was just-- You know, I-I bought some pizzas. One of my organizing committee members bought some sparkling cider. Um, she brought a laptop, set it on top of the pizzas. And then we just had, you know, friends there, union supporters, committee members, and we just watched the countdown. And I wrote, "Union, yes," and then, "No," on two different parts of the board, and I just did tallies as they came out. Um, and every yes, you know, we did like little-- a little chant.
Anna: What's the chant?
Jacob: Oh, we were just like, "Yes."
Or it was just like, "Another one." You know, it was nothing crazy.
Anna: So, Benjamin, I want to turn to you. Can you remember that day when your location voted to unionize? What was it like there?
Benjamin: Yeah, um, at our store, when we did our vote, we actually, uh, unionized as an entire city in Ithaca, which is a little different than how a lot of places have been doing it. So we had all three votes on one day, and we had it up on a big projector, and we just had a room full of everybody from all three stores. And it happened a lot like Jacob's where everybody was just cheering for each yes vote. Each store only had one no vote, so I think we had it a little more lucky than it sounds like you did, Jacob. That sounds scary.
Jacob: A little bit.
Anna: And what happened to your store today? Tell me more about that.
Benjamin: Well, today was the last day we were open actually, a month and a half after we unionized, and a month after we went on strike for a grease trap that leaked all over our store. They told us they were closing our store, and that they would negotiate about our jobs in bargaining.
Anna: I'm really sorry, Benjamin. Um, is this an outcome that you at all envisioned when you made that yes vote, that your store where you'd worked was gonna close down?
Benjamin: Well, I'd certainly read about all the various forms of union busting, but I never thought they'd close our entire store. We're a very profitable store from the Cornell campus, so there's not really many reasons to close such a prime property.
Anna: And Benjamin, you mentioned, soon after your vote, like weeks after your vote to form a union, you all went on strike. Um, what-- That seems like, uh, going from 0 to 60 really fast. Is that what it felt like?
Benjamin: It definitely felt like that because our strike wasn't really talked about. It kind of was a spur of the moment thing. We were very understaffed, and we had a grease trap in the back that has smelled absolutely putrid since I started there. And on that day, it just leaked all over the place. So I called our manager and he told us to stay open and just have someone clean it up. So I just talked with everyone in the store, kind of explained what striking was, and what protections we had if we did it. And we told our boss we were walking out.
[start of audio playback]
News Anchor 1: After a disgusting mishap, Starbucks workers in Ithaca went on strike.
News Anchor 2: According to the shift supervisor, the workers were being forced to work in unsafe conditions.
Speaker: What do we want?
Crowd: Better working condition.
Speaker: When do we want it?
Speaker: If we don't get it.
Crowd: Strike now.
Speaker: If we don't get it.
[end of audio playback]
Anna: So you were part of the-the impetus for that? You were like, "Let's get out of here. We've got protections."
Benjamin: Yeah, I, um, I was the one that led the strike and tried to talk to everybody about it, and see how they felt before we did it.
Anna: Mm. Are you personally worried about money?
Benjamin: Yeah, I'm terrified. I'm the kind of person who lives about two like missed work days away from falling into abject poverty, so it's very scary. This week has all been about trying to raise funds and make sure every worker stays paid while we fight them on this.
Anna: Mm. How are you raising the money?
Benjamin: Right now, we're using GoFundMe, and we keep holding like sip-ins where you can go and stand on the picket line, or go inside and get a free water and just tip the baristas really high. The one we did on Wednesday got us over $900 in tips.
Anna: Uh-huh. Laila, have you been following what's been going on in Ithaca from where you are in Arizona?
Laila: Yeah, I follow everything, let's just say.
I got-- I've got plenty of time to follow it.
Anna: You've been out of work, uh, and-and, uh, in challenging being out of work, um, since April. Um, you know, when you lose your job, you lose your paycheck. Um, but Starbucks also provides benefits like, uh, an ability to-to go to school at Arizona State University. Um, is that something that you took advantage of?
Laila: I did, indeed. And they took that away in a heartbeat. Fortunately, my parents say things are okay. But, I mean, both my parents, which are d-divorced, they both have health issues. My dad, who just got a kidney transplant needs another one, and my mom has cancer. So I-- My parents don't like to keep me in the loop especially since they know I worry about their health. So, I mean, unfortunately, things happened the way they did, but I think- I think I'll figure it out some way. [chuckles] Hopefully.
Anna: You've got other things you're worrying about, it sounds like.
Laila: Yes. [chuckles]
Laila was fired in early April. She says it was for union organizing, that management started reprimanding her for minor things they would have let slide before. A Starbucks spokesperson told us it was because she illegally recorded conversations with people at work without their knowledge and a disciplinary conversation she had with a manager. Laila posted that one online.
[start of audio playback]
Laila: I've been here for three years and you do-- you didn't, no one communicated any of this for-for the--
Speaker: I just shared with you.
Laila: Okay, no, uh, so you-- But you have like-- You never came to me and said, "I'm going to get this on a documentation." You never said that--
[end of audio playback]
When Laila was fired, her case was quickly picked up by labor lawyers who argue it was an illegal firing, and hers is not the only such case. In the past year, over 40 Starbucks employees have filed complaints over unlawful terminations. And some have been reinstated. But the week before our taping, Laila lost an effort to get reinstated while the National Labor Relations Board considered her case. So she's not back at work.
Laila: I mean, it's just I'm learn-- I'm learning a lot of legal stuff. I'm-I'm realizing how everyone has a motive. And at the end of the day, you have to be careful because Starbucks is a $52 billion company and they could do a lot. And they could switch the story around, and switch your words really easily. And I think the lawyers have been a little too confident in the case.
Laila: And I think that I could have gotten prep. I didn't get any preparation before the hearing. So it's just been complicated, and I'm just hoping that the next steps are gonna go better.
Coming up, we talk about when work bleeds into home life, and the other way around.
Anna: Am I right that you, uh, you live with a fellow Starbucks colleague, is that right?
Jacob: Yes, actually my-- one of my organizing committee members, I live with her. I open the store five days a week, she closes the store five days a week.
Hey, I’ve got a quick message from you, that I’m actually recording on my phone from a hotel room after my flight home from a family reunion was cancelled, so I'm making do with the recording studio I have.
I wanted to let you know that we’re going to be taking your questions again about student loans and the changing rules around them in the United States. It felt like an important time to check in with our friend, student debt expert Betsy Mayotte, as federal student loan payments are set to resume at the end of August, after being paused throughout the pandemic.
There’s also an important deadline coming up this fall if you think you might be eligible for the public service loan forgiveness program.
So if you have questions about all this and how it affects your student debt – and it’s totally understandable if you do because it’s very confusing – send us a voice memo. Record yourself telling us about your situation and what your questions are, and then send the recording to us at email@example.com.
And whether or not you have student debt, let me recommend that you take a look at our previous reporting on student loans. To me, this is a topic that encompasses so much – our own individual financial decisions as we try to seek out opportunities for ourselves, how the costs of our higher education institutions have radically transformed and who’s asked to pay for it, and how our government has and hasn’t responded.
You can find our in-depth series about all this, driven by your individual stories, at deathsexmoney.org/studentloans. And we also did a special episode in 2020 in collaboration with NPR’s Life Kit where we answered your questions about pandemic student loan forbearance. You can find a link to both of those in our show notes.
So again, send us your student loan questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will do our best to get some of them answered… that is, if this airline ever lets me get back home.
This is Death Sex and Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
When I was growing up in West Virginia, when I heard about unions, I pictured coal miners on a picket line. We learned labor songs in school and the history of the labor movement in 20th century America. That movement was at its peak in 1954, when 35% of the American workforce was unionized.
Then came the decline of domestic manufacturing in the US, along with the spread of business-friendly policies that made it harder to unionize.
In 2021, just 10% of American workers belong to a union.
And less labor power has meant a lot of things. There's been a decline in real wages that's coincided with that drop. And there's less mentoring for organizing efforts, fewer lessons are being passed down.
Laila told us she's finding guides through DMs with other young organizers, like the leader of the successful Amazon organizing effort on Staten Island.
Laila: Chris Smalls, I look up to him just for everything he's done. And I'm excited 'cause he's about to be in Phoenix and I'm going to meet him. And I see him as a real inspiration for everything he's done.
Anna: Jacob, when did you first become aware of Laila? How did you all connect?
Jacob: You know, it was from, uh-- It was on Twitter.
Laila: You actually came-- You actually-- you texted me the day I got fired. [chuckles]
Jacob: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
Anna: Oh really?
Jacob: I texted her the day she got fired. There we go.
Anna: Have you met in person yet?
Jacob: We haven't unfortunately. Just a lot of FaceTime.
Laila: We will soon.
Jacob: Will soon indeed. But for the most part, like, she's told me that if they fire me, she'll be-- she'll just start driving. She'll be up here. Like, you know, it's about a 12-hour drive, but she'll be up here.
Laila: I will.
Anna: When do you FaceTime? Like is-- Are they strategic conversations? Are they sort of morality conversations?
Laila: There's-there's just a lot of ranting going on and especially with Jacob still at work, and the more-- there's always some stuff happening, and it's interesting to hear about like how similar it is, but also different in a certain aspect, because the same thing happens all over but there's just-- it just happens in a different way. And it's crazy to think about how, I mean, his manager just stopped showing up. Mine went on the trash run, never came back. So--
Jacob: That actually happened.
Laila: Yeah, it happened to me.
Jacob: That was wild. Oh my God.
Laila: And it's just things like that. It's-it's really easy to relate with someone who's worked at Starbucks. Especially with the whole process, and, you know, talking to someone that's going through retaliation. I mean, being a person that's gotten fired, all I want to do is help others prepare them, that if you're fired, things are going to be okay. It's not the end of the world. I will be there, all these partners will be there, a whole nation will be like behind you.
Still, when I asked these Starbucks workers whether they had thought much about unions before the first Starbucks store in Buffalo organized in 2021, they said mostly no. It's not that there weren't issues, they wish they got paid more. There could be short-staffing.
Laila: Sometimes there's only two people on the floor and it's-- it takes a lot out of you.
There were COVID safety issues.
Jacob: So, I got COVID. We all got COVID.
But all that just seemed like par for the course when it comes to food service work.
Buffalo's success changed that.
And for Benjamin, it started to change not just how he thought about his job, but also his parents' jobs, and what life had been like for them when he was growing up in Cortland, New York, a small city in the middle of the state.
Benjamin: My parents both worked in the same factory. They worked in a factory where they bottled those little shampoos for hotels and stuff.
Anna: Oh, uh-huh, is that factory still operating there?
Benjamin: Yeah, it's kind of like one of the like job hubs of Cortland.
Anna: Uh-huh. And is there-- Is it a unionized workplace?
Benjamin: No, it's not. It could afford-- I-it needs to be but it's not.
Anna: Are your parents both living now?
Benjamin: My mom's not, but my father is. He just retired last year.
Anna: Have you all talked at all about what's going on with your workplace?
Benjamin: Yeah, yeah. Sort of.
Anna: What's he make of it?
Benjamin: He's not the most supportive person. I mean, the only thing he said to me when I told him about it, which I was fearful to do because I expected this response, was, "I guess you want to get fired then?" And it was really tough coming from him because I watched him work my entire life and then retire almost on minimum wage.
Anna: Mm. Can you tell me more about what that felt like to hear, having watched your dad work really hard and-and in your view not-not finish his working life with any kind of stability? Like what-what was that like for you to hear from him that he was like this risk might not be worth it?
Benjamin: I think it made me want to mobilize more just because I and so many other people I work with even at the college app store, um, could probably face that sort of future if we didn't do something like this. I mean, and Jacob was talking about how many no votes were at his store, and I always try to talk to my co-workers about the people who don't support our union, because they're our co-workers as well. And hearing someone like my dad say that just made me want to advocate for the people who don't believe, because what better way to show someone that you have protection than to protect them as a worker?
Anna: Oh, so I-I just want to say back, and I want to make sure I'm understanding what you're saying. You're saying to just keep advocating and to keep showing even people who aren't supportive of the union what it could mean materially to improve their lives in their workplace, that that's a way to build long-term support.
Benjamin: Yeah, absolutely.
Anna: And, Benjamin, when your dad said, "I hope you don't get fired," and now your store has closed, do you think you'll talk to him about that?
Benjamin: Um, I didn't really have a choice not to just because there was so much news coverage of it. But I didn't really worry about it validating his ideas of unions or anything 'cause he hasn't really kept with that energy. I just kinda felt relieved that he knew, and I hope he sees what we're doing and it changes his mind, and makes him feel seen as a former worker.
Anna: Did you get to talk to him about it? You know he knows. Did you all speak about it?
Benjamin: We spoke about it, but we spoke about it the way a father and son who are bad at talking about their emotions talk about these things.
Anna: [laughs] Um, is there anybody in your life, Benjamin, that you can turn to and say, like, "I know this might be worth it in the long run, but I am- I am pretty freaked out. I'm scared"?
Benjamin: I'd say probably every member of our union, we have a lot of conversations like that beyond just organizing things. Um, the experience in our store sounds a lot like what everybody on this call went through. It's been psychological warfare it feels like.
Jacob: Yeah, psychological warfare's the perfect word. 'Cause I've said that on many occasions, like, to my team. I'm like, "They're engaging in psychological warfare on us." So it was like, you know, we've been very aware just because it's like I think every-every-- all-all of us have experienced our managers trying to use, like, emotional manipulation to get us to vote no.
Benjamin: You really need to come up with your own terms to combat all of the weird Starbucks terms that they use to gaslight us with.
Jacob: Yeah, absolutely. At my store, um, I stole this from The Simpsons.
Jacob: Um, there's, uh, an episode where, like, Homer is sent to India and he, like, lets the workers, uh, at the nuclear power plant unionize, and they're chanting, like "A-bom-shabai," which it's apparently supposed to translate to, "Vote union". So we'll say that to each other on the- on the floor, because management doesn't know what it means.
Benjamin: I'm stealing that.
Jacob: So we-we used that like in the very beginning, because I got COVID and I binge-watched the literal entirety of The Simpsons because I was out for like a month.
Benjamin: Jacob, speaking of The Simpsons, just, or the other day when we got $900 in tips from one of our boycotts, I was going around and saying, "900 Dollarydoos."
Jacob: Wonderful. I love that.
Anna: Um, Benjamin, I know you wanna hop off to talk to your bargaining team. I just want to ask you, um, just one more- one more question. Um, I know today's been a big day, the doors are locking at your location, um, unclear if they'll ever be unlocked again. What's gonna happen? Where are you gonna report for work next? Um, what are the questions that you are sort of gonna be thinking about as you lay down to bed tonight? What do you think you'll be thinking about?
Benjamin: Um, well, the reopening of our store is unclear, but we're gonna keep fighting for it. We can't lose hope. Um, I'm not looking for another job right now. We are gathering funds so we can all stay in this battle and keep fighting. We'll see how it goes in a couple weeks when I'm even more poor. Maybe I'll find another place to unionize at the same time.
Right before we put this episode out, we called Jacob, Laila, and Benjamin back. Laila says her official hearing for reinstatement is later this month, and she's feeling confident.
Jacob told us that when he went back to his store for the first time after the successful union vote, things felt even more tense.
Jacob: They immediately started retaliating after we unionized.
A Starbucks spokesperson told us that any allegations of anti-union animus are categorically false.
And Benjamin, he told us he's actually taking a step back from the Union to take care of his mental health.
Benjamin: It's just a lot of the, like, gaslighting tactics I personally experienced from management when our store was still open just kind of brought up things that I experienced from a-- not just like adults, but, like, people in my life that I was supposed to learn from when I was a kid. And I-I don't think I was really prepared to experience them in a workplace environment because it's work and you shouldn't have to think you were going to, so.
His store location is still closed. He's still getting a paycheck from fundraising the union set up, and so far, it's near what he was making before, minus tips. And he's not sure how long the funds will last, but he's hopeful he'll get another job at Starbucks at some point. And when he does, he'll get back to organizing. And in his spare time, he's been taking his dog for long walks.
Benjamin: Ithaca is plentiful with gorges and trails. You can pretty much walk two miles and get to a new hiking spot you've never been to before.
Anna: Yeah. Is time off where you weren't having to go in for hourly work, is that- is that an experience you've had as an adult?
Benjamin: I've been in and out of Starbucks every summer for the past four or five years. So, I mostly just know summer around here from, like, the windows of a Starbucks, as sad as that is. And it's nice to be outside of them.
That's Benjamin South in Ithaca, New York, Laila Dalton in Phoenix, and Jacob Lawson outside Salt Lake City in Utah. Thank you for talking to us for this episode.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Zoe Azulay. The rest of the team is Julia Furlan, Afi Yellow Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Lilly Clark.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I'm on Instagram @annasalepics, that's P-I-C-S. The show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Thank you to Dennis Venning in Canberra, Australia for being a member of Death, & Money, and supporting us with a monthly donation. You can join Dennis and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
Jacob: Um, I don't know if you believe in zodiac stuff, but I'm an Aries. [laughs] So actually, I think Laila is as well.
Laila: Uh-uh, I'm a cancer. I cry all the time.
Jacob: Okay, that's understandable.
I'm Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.