The ‘Red Cup Rebellion’ Is Here as Starbucks Workers Launch Massive Strike

Starbucks workers around the country are on strike today in what they’re calling the “Red Cup Rebellion.” 

Today is the busiest day of the year for the coffee giant. On Red Cup Day, the company gives away the reusable cups to customers who buy holiday-themed drinks like the peppermint mocha, or fall-themed beverages such as pumpkin spice lattes. People are super into it: Some stores have run out of cups well before the end of the day during previous Red Cup Days. 

But for some Starbucks employees, it’s also the worst day of the year. And as workers at unionized stores step up their pressure campaign to force the company to finally negotiate with them, they’re going on strike, demanding bargaining sessions and increased staffing during one of the company’s busiest periods of the year. 

Carissa Frihart, a Starbucks shift supervisor, was traumatized by her first Red Cup Day. Frihart had been working at a store in Hopewell, New Jersey, for six months, and said the store’s Red Cup Day was “pure chaos.” 

At one point, she said, customers were waiting up to an hour for their drinks. She came home from work that day with bruises, she added, a product of rushing to keep up with the demand and not having the space to move around at work.

“Red Cup Day is mentally and physically abusive,” Frihart, who is now a shift supervisor, told VICE News. “It sounds ridiculous talking about coffee, but imagine so many people yelling at you about how you’re not doing anything right and they’re not getting their drinks fast enough.” 

Workers on the Starbucks Reddit have described it as “the worst day of your year” and “absolutely unbearable.”

“Reading the words ‘red cup day’ sent chills down my spine with a side of ptsd,” one former worker posted. 

Starbucks Workers United is launching the strike in response to what they say are Starbucks’ “union-busting tactics and refusal to bargain”; last month, bargaining at several stores across the country began and promptly ended when the company refused to allow workers to sit in on the bargaining sessions via Zoom. 

“You cannot be pro-LGTBQ, pro-BLM, pro-sustainability, and anti-union,” Michelle Eisen, a barista at a Starbucks store in Buffalo who participated in one of those sessions, said in a statement from the union. “This Red Cup Day, we’re organizing for a voice on the job and a true seat at the table.”

At least 111 stores are participating in the strike, the union representing Starbucks workers said, and the union is even handing out their own branded red cups on the picket line.

A Starbucks spokesperson told the Washington Post the company recognized the workers’ right to “lawful protest activity” during Red Cup Day.

Even though hundreds of Starbucks stores have unionized this year, collective bargaining has gone nowhere: The company’s representatives refused to bargain with employees over Zoom last month, and walked out of a session almost as soon as it began. Workers on the one-day strike are demanding that the company bargain with them, and increase staffing levels. 

And for many workers, addressing these issues on Red Cup Day is the best place to start.

“[Red Cup Day] is by far the busiest I’ve ever seen the store,” Bennett Proegler, a former shift supervisor in Michigan, told VICE News. “Starbucks does not send enough red cups to last all day. My first year working Red Cup Day there was a line all the way around our Starbucks into the road of people waiting for these red cups at 4 in the morning.”

“It’s like Willy Wonka, with the chocolate bars and the golden tickets,” Lee Kido, an employee of more than three years who works at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in New York City, told VICE News. “And people get upset. It’s extra [work of] emotionally regulating for other people, or having to de-escalate, or soothe somebody’s anger over this cup.”

Proegler worked at Starbucks for more than two years before resigning from his unionized store in Ann Arbor in September, citing the stress of working at an under-staffed store. “For me to keep going into work every single day, especially while Starbucks continued to run a very-short staffed operation, it never felt like there were enough people to do the tasks we had,” Proegler told VICE News.

“This is a strike that is not meant to hurt the customer experience,” Proegler, who was involved in planning the action, told VICE News. “It’s always supposed to be a good fun time when you go to Starbucks, but unfortunately with them underpaying their partners and short-staffing the shifts, it’s been hard to deliver the Starbucks experience.”

There have been dozens of strikes at Starbucks locations around the country since the first store in Buffalo unionized last year. Kido and her coworkers have been on strike since Oct. 25, after workers discovered mold in the ice machine and bed bugs in their breakroom. Food safety inspectors also found moths in the coffee storage area this month, The City reported Wednesday.

“The Roastery’s been striking for 23 days so far, so it’s just another day for us except we’re going to wear red,” Kido told VICE News Wednesday. “We have shifts at the Roastery for striking so we can go to other Starbucks stores after or before our shifts to show solidarity, because they’ve been doing that for us.” 

Starbucks worker Lee Kido outside the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in New York City on Novemner 17, 2022 (Jules Roscoe for VICE News).

Frihart and her coworkers, whose store voted unanimously to unionize in April, went on strike in August over reduced hours and what they described as managerial incompetence. Frihart said that hours have since been reduced again, and they’re looking for increased staffing from the company to help adequately run the store. 

“Even with my open availability, I only have 30 hours a week [in the next schedule],” Hailey Kenney, a barista at the Hopewell store, told VICE News. “So even though we’re going on strike to stand in solidarity with workers across the country, it also shows up as a very opportune moment for us to go on strike as our own individual store.”

Today’s strike action comes on the heels of the National Labor Relations Board suing in federal court for an injunction that would prohibit all Starbucks stores in the U.S. from firing and disciplining employees for engaging in union activity. Starbucks Workers United said that more than 150 pro-union employees nationwide—Starbucks calls them “partners”—have been fired for such activity. The company has repeatedly denied such retaliation. 

Starbucks announced record-breaking sales revenue in the fourth quarter of the 2022 fiscal year and $1.1 billion in profits, according to NPR

“How are we partners in this? Starbucks loves to preach about us being partners,” Frihart told VICE News. “How are we getting any reward for operating under these unfair conditions and creating these record profits, and tolerating verbal abuse?”

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