Unionized Starbucks Employees Fight for Abortion Care Benefits

Protesters rally against what they perceive to be union busting tactics, outside a Starbucks in Great Neck, N.Y., on Aug. 15, 2022. (Thomas A. Ferrara / Newsday RM via Getty Images)

When Alisha Humphrey, a Starbucks partner and Starbucks Workers United organizer in Oklahoma, read the company’s June 15 announcement that they could not guarantee access to abortions to their unionized employees, she recalled a feeling of horror.

“It was terrifying,” Humphrey said. “To gamble life-saving abortion care access to unionized stores is very despicable.”

This announcement came just one week ahead of the official Dobbs v. Jackson decision—leaked weeks earlier by Politico—which overturned Roe v. Wade and dismantled federal abortion protections in the United States. Now, labor experts and members of Starbucks Workers United, which has unionized over 200 Starbucks stores across the U.S. as of Aug. 9, 2022, are concerned not only for unionized employees’ access to necessary abortion care but also for the future of workers’ rights at Starbucks.

Partners Fear Loss of Abortion Access

On May 15, Starbucks executive vice president Sara Kelly announced to Starbucks employees, or partners, that those enrolled in the Starbucks healthcare plan will receive a “medical travel reimbursement benefit to access an abortion.”

But one month later, Kelly added the following update: “In stores represented by a union, federal law requires good faith collective bargaining over all wages, benefits and working conditions. That means Starbucks cannot make promises or guarantees about any benefits.”

Laila Dalton, a former Starbucks partner in Arizona and continued advocate for Starbucks Workers United, said she had a very similar experience to Humphrey upon hearing the news.

“Starbucks is weaponizing the loss of our rights, and they’re using it as a tool to manipulate us,” Dalton said.

Kit Grob, a Starbucks partner and organizer for Starbucks Workers United in Utah, agreed: “To have them literally dangle your reproductive rights over your right to have a good paying job and a safe workplace is just cruel to me. And it spits in the face of everything that Starbucks says they stand for.”

The corporation is known for its typically progressive policies, including its outspoken support for LGBTQ+ rights and its 2017 promise to hire 10,000 refugees worldwide.

Starbucks is weaponizing the loss of our rights, and they’re using it as a tool to manipulate us.

Laila Dalton

Women in unions earn higher and more equal wages, have greater access to affordable health benefits and are more likely to have the right not to be fired without cause, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Equitable access to abortion is particularly a “working class issue,” according to Dalton, who emphasized how much it affects Starbucks baristas in particular, who make an average of $17 an hour, or $33,000 a year.

“People who have money, who are not really a part of the working class, they’re able to fly out of state, they’re able to fly out of the country to get an abortion,” Dalton said. “But people who are rank-and-file workers like us, we’re not able to do that and can’t afford to take time off of work or pay to get abortions.”

Discouraging Unions With the Promise of Abortion Access

Labor experts and on-the-ground organizers alike allege that Starbucks’ messaging constituted an act of intimidation and union-busting. While Starbucks is not explicitly denying any partner access to abortion care through the employee healthcare plan, Starbucks says it cannot guarantee such access to unionized employees.

Steven Greenhouse, former labor reporter for the New York Times, identified Starbucks’ language as a potential union-busting tactic. “The fact that Starbucks is saying we will give these benefits to our non-union workers, but hey, we can’t give it to our union workers seems like a real anti-union strategy,” Greenhouse said.

Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton, took to social media to express a similar concern over Starbucks’ union-busting.

“This is taking union-busting to a whole new level. @Starbucks is using abortion rights as a cudgel to intimidate workers and prevent them from unionizing. This is precisely why we cannot rely on corporations to protect human rights,” he tweeted on June 29.

Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of labor unions in the U.S., commented on Twitter, “It is simply wrong to weaponize this access [to abortion] instead of protecting all workers.”

“It’s just absolutely typical and standard for an employer who’s trying to discourage their employees from unionizing, to say that benefits might be in jeopardy,” said Rebecca Givan, professor in the school of management and labor relations at Rutgers University.

According to a July 2020 report from the Economic Policy Institute, it is a “standard theme” in anti-union strategies to stress that employees have no guarantee of maintaining current wages and benefits.

“Starbucks cannot make promises or guarantees about any benefits and we are forthcoming with our partners regarding this,” a Starbucks spokesperson wrote. “This underscores one of our greatest concerns—that partners are not receiving accurate information from Workers United about the bargaining process or their existing benefits. Each store’s collective bargaining will be different, and we cannot predict nor guarantee what the outcomes will be.”

It’s just absolutely typical and standard for an employer who’s trying to discourage their employees from unionizing, to say that benefits might be in jeopardy.

Rebecca Givan

Greenhouse agreed that Starbucks cannot technically guarantee these benefits due to the unknowns of collective bargaining, but points out that it is unlikely unions would turn down access to necessary healthcare services such as abortion.

“If and when Starbucks offers this to the non-union employees, the unionized workers who are engaging in negotiations pending a contract would say ‘of course, one-hundred-percent,’” he said.

“There’s nothing stopping Starbucks from extending those benefits to unionized stores, they just have to ask us first,” Grob explained.

Though Starbucks has presented its organized workers with significant barriers, Greenhouse said that organizers and activists are inspiring more young people across the country to unionize. “Starbucks stores have really inspired people, showing them you really can succeed in unionizing even against a very anti-union company,” he said.

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

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Katie Hawkinson is a senior at Georgetown University studying history and global medieval studies.