Baltimore-area baristas among workers at more than 100 Starbucks who walk out on ‘Red Cup Day’

Baltimore-area baristas joined workers from more than 100 Starbucks locations across the U.S. on Thursday in a “Red Cup Day” walkout to protest low wages and poor working conditions and to pressure the coffee giant to negotiate with newly formed unions.

The one-day strike, which included Starbucks workers in Baltimore and White Marsh, marked the largest labor action since a campaign to unionize the company’s stores started late last year.


Starbucks baristas in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood became the first of the coffee chain’s Maryland employees to organize with a vote in April. But striking workers Thursday accused the company of delaying negotiations on a contract proposal.

“Starbucks corporate has refused to sit down and negotiate a contract with us,” said Violet Sovine, an employee and the strike captain for Mount Vernon workers.


Walkouts in cities such as Boston, New York, Austin, Pittsburgh, Denver and St. Louis coincided with Starbucks’ annual Red Cup Day, when the company gives free reusable cups to customers who order a holiday drink. Workers say it’s often one of the busiest days of the year. Starbucks declined to say how many red cups it planned to distribute.

Starbucks employees and supporters picket outside the Starbucks at East Preston and North Charles streets Thursday afternoon.

Workers said they’re seeking better pay, more consistent schedules and higher staffing levels in busy stores. Stores in 25 states planned to take part in the labor action, according to Starbucks Workers United, the group organizing the effort. Strikers handed out their own red cups with union logos.

Starbucks, which opposes the unionization effort, said it is aware of the walkouts and respects its employees’ right to lawfully protest. The Seattle company noted that the protests are happening at a small number of its 9,000 company-run U.S. locations.

“We remain committed to all partners and will continue to work together, side-by-side, to make Starbucks a company that works for everyone,” the company said Thursday in a statement.

In Baltimore, some workers appeared on the corner of North Charles and East Preston streets as early as 5 a.m., waving signs with rallying cries such as “We Deserve Better” and asking motorists to honk in support of unionization. About 15 workers walked a picket line at various times throughout the day, until the store closed early in midafternoon. Strikers said they believed that early closing was due to low staffing, as only managers had come to work.

A similar picket line that took place through midafternoon Thursday was organized by workers at the Starbucks in the Nottingham Square Shopping Center on Campbell Boulevard in White Marsh.

Standing outside the Mount Vernon Starbucks, Sovine credited the union with helping to protect insurance benefits but complained of a delay in getting a raise that first went only to non-unionized stores. Workers finally got the raise but not the back pay to which they’re entitled, Sovine said.

Kieren Levy, 22, a barista for more than a year, said continued top concerns are workers being underpaid and given too few hours and stores being understaffed.


“We just want to send a message that this is not OK,” Levy said “They have to come to meet with us. We have put a lot of time into coming up with our contract, and they just won’t even give us the time of day.”

Some customers walked past striking workers into the store, but one supporter stopped to encourage the efforts, telling workers he is a retired union electrician.

“You and Amazon seem to be doing the two biggest ones I’ve seen lately,” said David Curran, a neighborhood resident, adding that Starbucks workers “need to have a voice in the management of the company. And I think they also need to be able to raise their quality of living. ... I’d like to see these people treated much better than they have been.”

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The union said the goal is to shut stores down during the strikes and noted that the company usually has difficulty staffing during Red Cup Day because it’s so busy.

The North Charles Street coffee shop workers voted unanimously in April to join Workers United, an affiliate of SEIU. At the time, four other Maryland Starbucks shops had begun the process of organizing, which, besides Nottingham, included Linthicum, Bel Air and Stevensville.

At least 257 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize since late last year, according to the National Labor Relations Board. Fifty-seven stores have held votes in which workers opted not to unionize.


Starbucks and the union have begun contract talks at 53 stores, with 13 additional sessions scheduled, Starbucks Workers United said. No agreements have been reached so far.

The process has been contentious. Earlier this week, a regional director with the NLRB filed a request for an injunction against Starbucks in federal court, saying the company violated labor law when it fired a union organizer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The regional director asked the court to direct Starbucks to reinstate the employee and stop interfering in the unionization campaign nationwide.

Starbucks has asked the NLRB to temporarily suspend all union elections at its U.S. stores, citing allegations from a board employee that regional officials improperly coordinated with union organizers. A decision in that case is pending.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.