St. Paul Starbucks union organizer on the fight to organize in Minnesota — and across the country

Customers queue for coffee at Starbucks
Customers queue for coffee at Starbucks Coffee inside the Dulles International Airport complex on August 30, 2011 in Dulles, Virginia, near Washington, DC.
Paul J. Richards | AFP/Getty Images

Last week, employees at an Eden Prairie Starbucks store announced that they’re pursuing unionization. And the week before, the Mall of America Starbucks workers voted to unionize. In all, eight Minnesota Starbucks stores have pursued unionization this year.

And you may have noticed — nationally — 2022 saw a spike in workers organizing for more benefits, pay and say at work. Gracie Nira works at a Starbucks in St. Paul that recently unionized — they’re now a shift leader and union organizer at their Starbucks store.

They joined host Chris Farrell to share what’s behind the growing movement.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. Subscribe to the Minnesota Now podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

So to start off, how did you get involved in unionizing?

So in back in 2020, 2021, I actually worked at a different Starbucks and we did a number of issue based safety COVID and organizing informally. And when I transferred to 300 Snelling location back in July of last year, that culture really moved with those of us that went to the store. and we began talking about unionizing, sort of informally, right at the outset. It wasn't until seven employees were fired in Memphis that we actually started to have the conversation of what it would mean to show solidarity and organize our own union, to stand with the movement.

How have you supported each other as union members during this whole thinking about this process?

I think a lot of that comes back to the importance of grassroots relations, something that was true during COVID. They closed down a lot of stores temporarily and then moved all of us into drive thru locations, those of us that were willing to work. That was the only place that we were going during the lockdown and it really reinforced this sense of team camaraderie and something that felt more deep, personal and urgent for those still at work. And that's translated to now, following the news, the local climate, there's a different aspect of ourselves that we bring to the work that we do and that really strengthens our personal relationships.

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What's the difference being a worker without a union and being a worker with the union?

Legal protections. I think that with some of that issue based organizing we did back in 2021 Starbucks would have captive audience meetings and intimidation tactics, that at the time, I and fellow coworkers didn't really have a good framework for understanding and in many ways that drove us to support each other as workers more and to actually seek out the protections that a union could give. I think there's a strong sense of collective strength that comes with knowing that we can organize ourselves to win a union through a vote and a lot of momentum that is gained through that as well.

Compared to the past, why do you think a younger, educated group of people seem to be more fired up about unionizing?

I've been thinking a lot about this question, too. I was reading some research through the Pew Research Center that was talking about how millennials and Gen Z, I consider myself a millennial at work, I'm one of the oldest people my store just turned 26 and I work with a lot of people who are still in college, there's a lot of natural generational agreement on social issues. with a lot of non-white workers and queer workers.

I think we're living in a moment where we can see our rights and the past wins that past generations have made eroding in real time. Roe v. Wade is one. I know there was a ruling in Alabama that allowed for separation to disenfranchise Black voters and we're really seeing what can happen if we don't stick our necks out and you know, bargain for our rights. I think there's a very urgent and existential need to bargain with our employers for protections that we might not have legally otherwise.

So are you getting information calls from Starbucks workers, maybe elsewhere in the country saying, how did you do this? How does this work? Tell us what's going on here?

Yeah, we have a pretty good network between the Minnesota region so people can get in contact with any of the organizers and myself. But there's also the parent union, we have Workers United and we have their information. They have really helped us formalize the process of doing our intake and getting organizing and a committee set up. Partners can reach out to us and then to them to sort of start their own unions that way.

So tell us about this event you're organizing with the East Side freedom library, there's other union activists are going to be involved. It's later this month, right?

Yes, it is. So on July 30, in collaboration with the East Side freedom library at 1 p.m,, there's going to be a number of us workers from different stores across the state, either on the organizing committee, just rank and file workers having a public conversation around what the background of organizing at Starbucks in Minnesota has looked like and how we're imagining its future as well.

And what do you hope to get out of this?

I really want to get on the same page as other stores and sort of assess how we want to creatively approach bargaining. So for those of us that have won our union elections, we can enter the bargaining phase with Starbucks. Starbucks has been pretty slow on the uptake but I think there's a lot of power that comes with the rights to bargain. I want to see how we're approaching some innovative negotiations and what our baseline is.

Do you think that there are opportunities in different industries, different businesses, than some of the ones that we we've heard about, such as Starbucks and one of the Apple stores for example?

I definitely think so. I know that across industries, things comes with their own challenge, like Amazon warehouse looks really different than a Starbucks café. I think there is a lot of momentum and a lot of creativity and energy. Chipotle just won their first union and Half Price Books actually started their unions and Minnesota's were the first to take off so I could definitely see that transferring across industries.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: Last week, employees at an Eden Prairie Starbucks store announced that they're pursuing unionization. And the week before, the Mall of America Starbucks workers voted to unionize, and all eight Minnesota Starbucks stores have pursued unionization this year. And you may have noticed nationally, 2022 saw a spike in workers organizing for more benefits, pay, and for a say at work.

Gracie Nira works at a Starbucks in Saint Paul, that recently unionized. They started working at Starbucks as an undergrad at Macalester College, they're now a shift leader and union organizer at their Starbucks store. So they join me now to talk about the next generation of union organizers. Gracie, welcome to Minnesota now.

GRACIE NIRA: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

INTERVIEWER: So to start off, just tell us, how did you get involved in unionizing?

GRACIE NIRA: So back in 2020/2021, I actually worked at a different Starbucks on Snelling and Marshall, and we did a number of issue-based safety COVID organizing informally. And when I transferred to the 300 Snelling location, back in July of last year, that culture really moved with those of us that went to the store. And we began talking about unionizing informally right at the outset. And it wasn't until seven employees were fired in Memphis that we actually started to have the conversation of what it would mean to show solidarity and organize our own union to stand with the movement.

INTERVIEWER: And so as this conversation has grown, how have you reinforced each other? Have you supported each other as union members thinking about this process?

GRACIE NIRA: I think a lot of that comes back to the importance of grassroots relations, something that was true during COVID. They closed down a lot of stores temporarily and then moved all of us into drive-through locations, those of us that were willing to work. And I think having that limited, I mean that was the only place that we were going during the lockdown.

It really reinforced this sense of team camaraderie and something that felt more deep, personal, and urgent, I think for those still at work. And that's translated to now, I think all of us following the news, the local climate, there's a different aspect of ourselves that we bring to the work that we do, and that really strengthens our personal relationships.

INTERVIEWER: You use the word camaraderie a couple of times, and I mean, you've answer, I can hear it in your voice but what's the difference being a worker without a union and being a worker with a union?

GRACIE NIRA: Legal protections. I think that some of that issue-based organizing we did back in 2021, Starbucks would have captive audience meetings and intimidation tactics that, at the time, I and fellow coworkers didn't really have a good framework for understanding. And in many ways, that drove us to support each other as workers more, and to actually seek out the protections that a union could give.

And so I think there's a strong sense of collective strength that comes with knowing that we can organize ourselves to win a union through a vote and a lot of momentum that is gained through that as well.

INTERVIEWER: So I'm curious what you think because it seems that a lot of people who are involved in the union organizing efforts these days, they're younger. They're better educated than, say, their union counterparts in the past, like in the 1950s and 1960s. And I read-- I think it was a New York Times story-- a lead organizer in the Starbucks union campaign is a Rhodes scholar. So maybe an unfair question, but I'm going to ask it anyway. Why do you think a younger educated group of people seem to be fired up about unionizing?

GRACIE NIRA: Yeah, I've been thinking a lot about this question too. I was reading some research through the Pew Research Center that was talking about how millennials and Gen Z, I consider myself a millennial, I'm one of the oldest people in my store, I just turned 26.

I work with a lot of people who are still in college, and there's a lot of natural generational agreement on social issues. A lot of non-white workers, a lot of queer workers. And I think we're living in a moment where we can see our rights and the past wins, that past generations have made eroding in real time.

Roe v. Wade is one I know there was a ruling in Alabama that allowed for the separation of blocks, that disenfranchised Black voters. We're really seeing what can happen if we don't stick our necks out and bargain for our rights. And I think there's a very urgent and existential need to bargain with our employers for protections that we might not have legally otherwise.

INTERVIEWER: So are you getting information calls from Starbucks workers, maybe elsewhere in the country, saying how did you do this? How does this work? Tell us what's going on here.

GRACIE NIRA: Yeah, we have a pretty good network between the Minnesota region, so people can get in contact with any of the organizers, myself, but there's also the parent union, we have workers United. We have their information and they have really helped us formalize the process, doing our intake, getting organizing committee set up and so partners can reach out to us, reach out to them and start their own unions that way.

INTERVIEWER: So tell us about this event I gather that you're organizing with the East Side Freedom Library. There's other union activists are going to be involved. It's later this month?

GRACIE NIRA: Yes, it is. So on July 30, in collaboration with the East Side Freedom Library at 1:00 PM, there's going to be a number of us workers from different stores across the state, either on the organizing committee, just rank and file workers, having a public conversation around what the background of organizing at Starbucks in Minnesota has looked like and how we're imagining its future as well.

INTERVIEWER: And what do you hope to get out of this? Out of this particular event? Yeah.

GRACIE NIRA: I would really like to see-- I really want to get on the same page I think as other stores, and assess how we want to creatively approach bargaining. So for those of us that have won our union elections, we can enter the bargaining phase with Starbucks and Starbucks has been pretty slow on the uptake. But I think there's a lot of power that comes with the rights to bargain and I want to see just how we're approaching some innovative negotiations and what our baseline is.

INTERVIEWER: And I'd asked you and you answered in terms of other Starbucks employees and in other words Starbucks, how do you think that there are opportunities in different industries, different businesses than some of the ones that we've heard about, such as Starbucks and one of the Apple stores, for example?

GRACIE NIRA: Yeah, to unionize you mean?

INTERVIEWER: Yes.

GRACIE NIRA: Yeah, I definitely think so. I know that across industries, things comes with their own challenge like Amazon warehouse looks really different than a Starbucks cafe, but I think there is a lot of momentum and a lot of creativity and energy that makes, I know Chipotle just won their first union, Half Price Books actually started their unions. Minnesota's were the first to take off. So I could definitely see that transferring across industries.

INTERVIEWER: Well, thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it.

GRACIE NIRA: Yes, thank you so much for having me.

INTERVIEWER: That was Gracie Nira, a union organizer and shift supervisor at Starbucks in Saint Paul. You can learn more about the July 30 panel discussion she mentioned on Starbucks workers unionizing. It's going to be at the East Side Freedom Library, and you go online. It's eastsidefreedomlibrary.org.

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