Thousands of Starbucks workers walk off the job in "Red Cup Rebellion"

Thousands of unionized Starbucks employees walked off the job Thursday on “Red Cup Day,” an annual promotion in which the coffee chain gives out reusable cups to customers who order holiday drinks, according to the union behind the protest.

Starbucks Workers United said what it dubbed the “Red Cup Rebellion” is the largest ever work stoppage in the history of the company, a bid to draw attention to ongoing complaints about staffing, scheduling and other workplace issues.

Juniper Schweitzer, who has worked for Starbucks for 16 years, said she loves the company and its ideals but believes it’s not living up to them.

“They have promised the world to us and they have not delivered,” said Schweitzer, who was picketing outside her Chicago store on Thursday.

The labor group has organized about 360 Starbucks stores, a small percentage of the company’s more than 9,000 U.S. locations. Starbucks downplayed the impact of the labor action.

“We have nearly 10,000 stores open right now delighting our customers with the joy of Red Cup Day. There are also a few dozen stores with some partners on strike, and more than half of those stores are open this morning serving customers,” a Starbucks spokesperson said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch.

The protest comes amid signs that the push by employees to unionize Starbucks has slowed after three cafes in upstate New York in 2021 became the first company stores to organize. Since then, Starbucks Workers United has accused the company of using stall tactics to avoid coming to terms on a labor contract, while executives with the restaurant chain blame the union for the impasse.

Edwin Palmasolis, a Starbucks employee for more than two years, joined the picket line Thursday in front of his New York store. His store voted to unionize last year, but so far Starbucks and the union haven’t started bargaining. He thinks a contract would help improve working conditions at his busy Manhattan store.

“It’s been more of a downgrade than an uphill for us. It’s been exhausting trying to deal with their retaliation and not much of a change has been made in the past year,” he said.

In New York, nonunion Starbucks workers are filing new charges against the company for allegedly violating worker protection laws, according to the union. The new complaints, which involve more than 50 stores, allege that Starbucks in violating the city’s Fair Workweek Law. Enacted in 2017, the statute requires employers to give fast-food workers their schedules at least two weeks ahead or pay a bonus for the shifts. 

Starbucks denied that it is breaking the law. “We make every effort and have invested significant resources to ensure partner scheduling practices are in alignment with New York City’s Fair Workweek and Just Cause Laws,” the Starbucks spokesperson said in an email.

Thursday’s protests included workers at six unionized locations in Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh area, leaving customers to find temporarily closed signs at stores including in Bloomfield. 

Starbucks refuses to bargain over issues related to promotion days, leading to an influx of unhappy customers who have to wait longer for their caffeinated beverages because the company won’t bring in additional staff, according to workers. As part of the walkout, the union said workers want Starbucks to turn off mobile ordering on future promotion days.

“At my store, we’re the fourth busiest store on the entire East Coast and we saw upwards of 500 drinks an hour, with six people on the floor. That’s simply not realistic,” Casper Borowitz, who works at a Starbucks on the University of Pittsburgh campus, told CBS News Pittsburgh

We have been asking for mobile orders to be turned off during these high volume days and promotional days because we simply can’t keep up with the business,” Borowitz said.

In Maryland, Ellicott City barista Sam Petty echoed those concerns, telling CBS News Baltimore: “Imagine three people making orders for 30, 40 customers every half hour.” 

—The Associated Press contributed this report

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