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Just seven months after workers at Starbucks’ Dunbar location successfully unionized their workplace, becoming the first Starbucks in Vancouver to form a union, Starbucks Canada is set to permanently close the location this Sunday, September 24th. Starbucks has claimed that the closure is due to an “expiring lease”, but a look at the broader context leading up to the closure points to Starbucks’ anti-union stance as the primary motive. When intimidation, threats of raise-witholding, or promises of $1/hour raises fail to deter workers from forming unions, Starbucks is prepared to close unionized locations.
This closure comes at a time when Starbucks unionism in Canada is at a nascent stage, with only a handful of Starbucks locations unionized nationwide. In the United States, where workers at over 350 Starbucks locations have formed unions under Starbucks Workers United since late 2021, the corporation has deployed a range of union-busting tactics targeting unionized workers. In 2022, Ithaca, New York became the first city in the United States to have all of its locations unionized, and earlier this year Starbucks responded by permanently closing all three unionized locations.
Starbucks maintains that the Ithaca closures had nothing to do with unionization, and Starbucks Canada has said the same thing about the Dunbar Street location. Dunbar is a sleepy, residential neighbourhood on Vancouver’s westside, without much of a working class culture. But in early 2023, after a secretive union drive spearheaded by shift-supervisor and nursing student Frédérique Martineau, the twenty-two workers at the Dunbar Starbucks formed a union under United Steelworkers (USW) which represents three other unionized Starbucks locations in British Columbia, three in Alberta, and one in Waterloo, Ontario.
North Star interviewed Martineau, who stated that the impetus to unionize came mainly from workers’ frustrations about Starbucks’ newly introduced scheduling “algorithm,” which gave staffing recommendations to management based on the amount of product being sold at a given time and day. Despite facing intimidation and even emotional manipulation by management, workers at the Dunbar Starbucks voted overwhelmingly in favour of forming a union and succeeded in February 2023.
Shortly after, workers at the Dunbar Starbucks received a letter described by Martineau as “passive aggressive” from management stating that they would be withholding annual wage increases—a trademark Starbucks retaliation to unionized workers. The letter also informed the workers that store’s lease was expiring, but that unionization would not influence their decision to renew the lease.
In Martineau’s words, she and fellow workers knew that Starbucks was “obviously considering the fact that we’re union[ized]” with regards to renewing the lease. Martineau further alluded that despite official pledges, Starbucks has no interest in the community at large; shuttering a cafe that has been a community-hub for decades and scattering the close-knit team of workers to other locations across Vancouver. Other monopoly corporations like Amazon have shown a similar disdain for workers, communities, and unionization.
Both CBC and the Globe and Mail have repeated Starbucks Canada’s claim that an expiring lease and a small storefront location are the reasons for Dunbar’s closure, while treating it as incidental that this happens to be the first and only unionized Starbucks location in Vancouver. What is clear to North Star is that Starbucks Canada fears a wave of unionization, in Vancouver or anywhere else, and will use every tool at its disposal to prevent workers from organizing and exercising collective power.
Mainstream media bias in favour of big-business is to be expeced, but United Steelworkers’ response to Starbucks’ union-busting was more dissapointing. Scott Lunny, USW director in Western Canada, has said that he doesn’t have “any evidence or proof” that Starbucks closed its Dunbar location due to it being a unionized store. But Martineau and many of her colleagues are at variance with the union's official position; “we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think it was a factor.”