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Columbia Starbucks becomes third in SC to unionize after unanimous vote

Starbucks strike (copy)

Striking Starbucks employees and supporters put up signs at the 3009 Millwood Ave. location in Columbia on May 19. Mike Fitts/Staff

COLUMBIA — Starbucks baristas working at a store near downtown Columbia voted to unionize June 3, becoming the third South Carolina branch of the coffee giant to unionize.

Baristas at the Millwood Avenue store smiled and cheered over Zoom as they joined the over 100 Starbucks stores across the country that have unionized, including a pair in the Upstate.

The vote was unanimous, 12-0. One vote was voided and three were challenged — meaning that the coffee giant more than likely questioned whether three baristas were eligible to vote. 

The vote came after baristas of the store went on strike in mid-May following the firing of the store’s manager, whom they said was fired because she refused to stifle unionization plans.

“Our store has been facing a laundry list of retaliation for our unionization process,” Sophie Ryan, a barista at the store and one of the strike’s main organizers, told the Post and Courier last month. “It just started with simple discrimination about dress code policies ... but slowly started to be people being threatened with being written up.”

Typically, in the unionization process, workers go on strike if the company refuses to voluntarily recognize the union. That wasn’t the case at Millwood Avenue, where on May 18 workers began a late-afternoon strike that lasted into the next two days, with workers protesting with signs outside the cafe after they said their manager was fired unfairly. 

The Columbia store joins two other South Carolina locations in Greenville and Anderson, which held a vote May 31. A store in Sumter filed in May for a union vote.

South Carolina historically is not a state where organized labor movements have been fruitful. The state has the lowest percentage of union workers in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The store’s unionization is a part of a national wave that started with the first Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y., in December of last year. Workers at nearly 300 stores have filed with the National Labor Relations Board to unionize. As of Feb. 3, 102 stores have won union elections and 13 have lost their elections. 

“We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country. From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed,” a Starbucks official said in an email to Free Times following the employees’ initial strike.

If neither party objects to the results, the NLRB will certify the election on June 9, and then baristas at Millwood Avenue will begin the process of bargaining with the coffee giant for things like better wages and benefits.

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