Starbucks employee Zach Gabelein outside of the Mill Creek location where he works on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024 in Mill Creek, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Starbucks employee Zach Gabelein outside of the Mill Creek location where he works on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024 in Mill Creek, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

‘We cannot keep up’: Mill Creek Starbucks workers file for unionization

The cafe’s crew joins the ranks of the 624 stores nationwide, including two other locations in Snohomish County.

MILL CREEK — Zach Gabelein is in his third stint working at Starbucks.

He enjoys making pour-overs the best, “because it’s fresh and handmade, which I think adds a nice touch.”

Gabelein, 30, is adamant about store cleanliness and is “100%” proud of wearing the black apron, reserved for “coffee masters.”

Now, he’s on a quest to get his work to love him back.

Last week, Gabelein and his 24 coworkers at a Starbucks in Mill Creek, located at 16314 Bothell Everett Highway, filed for unionization.

Gabelein said they are hoping to get guaranteed hours, better staffing, pay and benefits. Starbucks Workers United said that across the nation, 20 other locations in 14 states filed simultaneously, making it the largest single-day filing in a recent unionization push.

In a joint letter to Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan, workers denounced the company’s “profit driven behavior.”

“We cannot keep up with constant (sales) promotions, dilapidated equipment, and unclean stores,” the letter said. “It’s clear to us now more than ever that this one-sided relationship is no longer working.”

If successful, Mill Creek will have the third unionized store in the county. In June 2022, the Broadway and 37th location in Everett became the first. A year later, the Lakewood Crossing store in Marysville followed suit. According to Law360, over 620 Starbucks across the United States have taken steps to unionize. Just over half have voted in favor of a union. It’s still a small fraction of the estimated 16,401 U.S. stores.

Gabelein said his coworkers and him are unionizing out of necessity. After the holiday rush, many have seen their hours halved.

Still, the store is routinely understaffed, he said.

“I work at my store with three or four people, sometimes with a drive-thru. And then someone takes a break or lunch,” Gabelein said. “And so that means one of us is basically doing everything.”

Gabelein routinely takes shifts within a 20-mile radius. At the Mill Creek Town Center, he has seen more manageable staffing levels.

Yet when he shared his observations with his coworkers, management told him not to gossip. His union representative called it by another name: talking about his workplace conditions.

“Which we have a legal right to,” he said. “So it’s kinda a little frustrating.”

Gabelein and others brought up concerns to their managers. But he said they were dismissive.

“I have personally been told by my manager: ‘Well, maybe this isn’t the right fit for you, if you can’t meet these metrics,’” he recalled.

Gabelein said the team was triggered by a video posted by Starbucks about “restitching the apron” and listening to “the good and the bad.” The video’s B-roll included someone in their store.

By that time, Gabelein said they communicated frequently through a group chat with 17 members.

“Originally, it was kind of a venting place. But for the most part, we all got to a point where we’re all pretty solid together,” he said.

Once they decided to unionize, it only took three weeks to get the required signatures. They overshot the 70% requirement, getting 90% of store employees to sign.

Since the filing, Gabelein says there has been an uptick in targeted write-ups for dress code violations, like wearing light blue jeans. He thinks stronger anti-union tactics are around the corner.

In September 2022, the National Labor Relations Board accused Starbucks of anti-union threats at the Lakewood Crossing store in Marysville. Last December, the board accused the company of closing an Evergreen Way location and others due to union activity.

In a statement, Starbucks said there is “no evidence” the company has used an “anti-union playbook.”

Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull wrote that a “direct relationship” with workers is a core company value, but that the company respects workers’ right to organize.

Trull also wrote Starbucks has improved average hours per worker by 5% and increased hourly compensation by nearly 50% since fiscal year 2020.

Still, Gabelein says there isn’t enough consideration.

“They need to listen to their baristas and their supervisors, not just their district managers,” he said. “If we have you making record profits, take a little bit of that and just give it to us right now, especially if everyone’s struggling.”

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez: 425-339-3449; aina.alvarez@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @Ainadla.

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