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Starbucks workers take a stand with strikes over Pride decor, fueling LGBTQ+ frustration with hours and benefits

In a display of outrage, workers from numerous Starbucks locations across the United States initiated strikes on Sunday to express their discontent over allegations made by the baristas’ union. The accusations claimed that managers at several cafes removed rainbow flags and Pride decorations in support of LGBTQ+ Pride month.

Outside the iconic Astor Place Starbucks in lower Manhattan, around a dozen employees gathered in picket lines on Sunday afternoon, coinciding with the city’s Pride parade. Chanting “New York is a union town! On strike! Shut it down!” the workers aimed to raise awareness of their cause. Union members distributed flyers and engaged with passersby, while some customers chose to support the strike by refraining from entering the establishment.

As Pride marches unfolded in major cities like New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, and Starbucks’ hometown of Seattle, many baristas and other employees voiced their anger over the ongoing dispute.

While Starbucks emphasized their commitment to an inclusive environment and company culture, concerns persisted among the workers and the baristas’ union. The conflict traces back to a year ago when the Workers United union alleged that the company had threatened union organizers, many of whom identify as queer or trans, with reduced hours that would render them ineligible for health insurance covering gender-affirming procedures, including gender reassignment surgery.

In response, Starbucks vehemently denied altering their coverage and dismissed the accusations as “false claims.” The company’s health insurance has provided coverage for gender confirmation surgery since 2012. Additionally, in 2018, Starbucks expanded its coverage to include procedures considered “cosmetic” by other plans, such as breast augmentation, hair transplants, and facial feminization.

Starbucks also refuted claims of banning Pride decorations, dismissing the allegation as “blatant fear-mongering” by the union.

Over the years, Starbucks has cultivated a reputation as a progressive company that supports LGBTQ+ workers and customers. It introduced pioneering perks like health insurance for same-sex domestic partners in 1988 and even advocated for marriage equality at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jackie Zhou, a 21-year-old shift supervisor at a Starbucks in New York City, observed, “Once we decided to unionize, they were like, we’ve had enough of this progressive stuff,” alluding to the change in the company’s approach.

Maggie McKeon, a customer who had intended to enter the Astor Place Starbucks, altered her plans after learning about the strike. Expressing solidarity with the workers, she stated, “If people are going to be affected by this, then I’m with them,” emphasizing her support for the employees rather than the company.

Since late 2022, Starbucks has been engaged in bargaining discussions with some of its more than 300 unionized company-owned U.S. locations. Pro-union baristas have presented proposals seeking stronger protections against discrimination and other improvements. However, as of now, no labor contract has been reached between the newly unionized cafes and the company.

The situation took a turn in 2020 when former Starbucks employee Arthur Pratt, a trans man, drew a version of the chain’s siren logo with flowing rainbow hair to celebrate Pride. The company embraced the design, sharing it nationwide and even featuring it on Instagram. However, Pratt was fired in November, allegedly in retaliation for supporting the organizing efforts at his Portland, Oregon location, according to the union.

This year, Pratt created a new poster ahead of Pride month, openly criticizing the company with the words, “You can’t say you’re pro-queer and be anti-union!”

Despite these controversies, Starbucks received a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign for 2022, which rates corporations on LGBTQ+ employee benefits and policies. Alongside more than 800 other companies, Starbucks was recognized for its commitment to equity.

As union organizing gained momentum, employees experienced erratic schedules and often saw their hours reduced below the 20-hour threshold required to qualify for health insurance. The baristas’ union has filed numerous complaints with the National Labor Relations Board to address these concerns.

Sam Cornetta, a 23-year-old barista from the Farmingville, New York Starbucks, joined his coworkers on strike at Astor Place. He claimed that the company was alienating LGBTQ+ workers and criticized Starbucks for using its claimed progressiveness and inclusivity as a performative façade.

As the dispute continues, Starbucks faces the challenge of reconciling its progressive image with the demands of its unionized workers. The outcome of these negotiations will determine the future course of labor relations within the coffee chain.

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