This Pride Month, amid a wave of protests targeting LGBTQ-friendly brands, Starbucks workers say they’ve been asked to take down Pride decorations. Workers say it’s part of a larger trend of undermining and demoralizing baristas, who are unionizing nationwide.

Starbucks Workers United members took part in “Strike with Pride” actions across the country on June 25. (Starbucks Workers United)

At the New York City Pride March on Sunday, June 25, Starbucks Workers United members jumped in front of the Starbucks corporation’s Pride contingent. They raised banners that read “Starbucks took down Pride Decorations & LIED about it” and “STARBUCKS UNION-BUSTING IS HOMOPHOBIC.”

The union’s delegation, already outnumbering the company’s official ranks, grew as people left the corporate contingent to join them. The resonant chant of “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” echoed down Fifth Avenue and across the thoroughfares of Greenwich Village, Manhattan’s historic gay neighborhood.

Maria Flores, a queer barista and union member at the Astoria Boulevard Starbucks, attended her first ever Pride march — alongside more than seventy other workers from ten different stores across the tristate area — on strike in protest of Starbucks’s removal of Pride decorations in stores across the country.

“It was surreal to be among tens of thousands of people marching, creating their own chants in real time,” Flores told Jacobin. “It’s not your traditional strike, but it was the most amazing thing that happened in New York City that day.”

Another group of union activists picketed outside the Astor Place Starbucks location in the East Village, adjacent to the Pride fest. Both were a part of the “Strike with Pride” actions organized by Starbucks Workers United in response to the removal of Pride decorations in stores — an effort that included Starbucks workers at more than 150 stores across the country. The strikes, as well as the concomitant unfair labor practice charges, are also in protest of Starbucks’s refusal to negotiate in good faith and its continued union busting, workers say.

Starbucks has stated it does not have a policy of removing Pride decorations. But “partners” (the company word for workers) say otherwise. Recently, More Perfect Union published emails confirming the anti-Pride directive in at least one region in the South.

“Starbucks policy is unclear and vague,” explained Matt Cartwright, who is a shift supervisor and union member at the State Street store in Madison, Wisconsin. “It might be true they don’t have a written policy about Pride decorations, but they certainly act like they do.” (On Monday, the company announced it would develop “clearer” guidelines around store decor.) 

At the Berkshire Center Starbucks in Danbury, Connecticut, where there will be a union election on July 6, workers put up a pride flag on a Wednesday. Later that day, it was taken down without notice, and subsequently put back up by the workers. On Thursday, the district manager came in and took down the flag as well as window decorations, saying the store is “going in a different direction and trying to create uniformity in the stores in the area to create a ‘cohesive Starbucks experience,’” said barista Theresa Buchta.

Buchta, a twenty-nine-year-old queer union member, told Jacobin that the district manager pulled her and other pro-union workers aside during service to inform them of this “different direction.” But when they asked to see where this policy came from, the manager denied it was a policy and reiterated corporate’s line that they aren’t “banning decorations.” She also told Jacobin that, since filing for an election, baristas had experienced increased surveillance from management, decreased labor hours, and a barrage of captive audience meetings.

At the State Street location in Madison, where workers won their union election earlier this year by a count of twenty to one, workers described a similar situation in which a district manager personally removed all Pride decorations including a flag that had been up in the store since May. “Our manager said this is not an attempt to suppress Pride but rather maintain the Starbucks vision,” said Cartwright, who described that vision as “cold and uniform.” Cartwright is also skeptical of the stated desire of a sterilized Starbucks brand. “Why are we allowed to put up decorations for the holidays but not Pride?”

His coworker Allie Kerr, who has worked at the State Street Starbucks for eight years, said the change is “disheartening” and that the store where she has grown and seen others grow similarly is “no longer as safe a space.”

Workers’ initial dismay quickly turned to action with a reinvigorated union effort. On June 16, the day after their Pride decor was unilaterally removed by management, pro-union partners at the Berkshire Center store “marched on the boss,” presenting a list of demands including an end to anti-union rhetoric, captive-audience meetings, and cutting hours. Buchta said the manager got up and walked away in response, “despite the fact that she has spent the past several weeks forcing [workers] to listen to her in captive-audience meetings.”

Even though the manager left, the union remained and read testimonials as a celebration of their action. There hasn’t been a single captive-audience meeting since. “I was nervous, but as we turned the corner and faced down the manager as this massive, organized group, I felt so empowered,” said Buchta.

More than three thousand workers are participating in Strike with Pride to fight back against the unilateral suppression of Pride in stores, according to the union. While that is planned to last through the week, Starbucks Workers United continues to organize new stores. Its most recent victory is in Missoula, Montana, which means there are now 331 unionized Starbucks across forty states. The campaign announced that workers at locations in Indiana, Missouri, and Nebraska had filed for union elections recently as well.

LGBTQ workers are particularly vulnerable under capitalism, caught in the cross fire of bigots determined to deny their personhood and corporations that shed their superficial support at the slightest pushback while continuing to deny workers a living wage and decent benefits. As right-wing reactionaries continue to foment moral panic targeting members of the LGBTQ community and their supporters, the colors of “rainbow capitalism” are fading.

The notion of the “woke” corporation is questionable to begin with. Corporations occasionally weigh in on social issues, but they ultimately prioritize profit above all else. That’s what has made boycotts and strikes historically effective, as these labor actions hold corporate profits hostage. But right-wingers can play that game too. Amid a surge of anti-Pride protests nationwide, including backlash against brands that embrace Pride, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Starbucks would change its tune to protect its profits.

“That’s the problem with capitalism. Capitalists don’t have moral convictions. They have stock accounts,” says Buctha. “They don’t care about us, actually. Of course they are going to flip the moment right-wing extremists apply any pressure.”

The multibillion-dollar coffee conglomerate continues to sell rainbow-themed coffee mugs. At least one store has admitted to removing Pride decor, but management says it was doing so as a way to protect workers from potential threats.

Workers say they won’t be shoved back in the closet. “Queer and trans rights are won through struggle. Hiding us isn’t protecting us,” queer union member and barista Shenby G told Jacobin. “A fair contract that guarantees health care, a living wage, and safety standards is what protects us.”

Baristas were also quick to point out that they face constant harassment and threats on the job, but they feel the company has yet to adequately address them. “Baristas face threats from customers routinely, and Starbucks doesn’t do much in response to that. Why do they only mention it now, during Pride?” asked Kerr.

Other workers fear that acquiescing to right-wing hate mongering will only embolden those seeking to eradicate queerness from public spaces. “Check the comment section of an article about this,” said Kerr. “It’s not hard to see how these actions are emboldening people who have these beliefs. This shows them that violent rhetoric gets them what they want.”

Many baristas see the suppression of Pride in stores as connected to the broader union-busting campaign Starbucks has waged over the past two years. “By unionizing, we are demanding more control [in the workplace], and it’s empowering to take collective action,” said Buchta. “Starbucks’s strategy is to try to wrestle that control back and make it seem like it’s not worth fighting in any way they can. Taking down the decorations is part of that. But in our store, it’s just made people angrier. It’s made people want to fight harder.”

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