Atlanta Starbucks workers are still working toward formalizing a union

The Ansley Mall and Howell Mill Road stores voted to unionize, but Starbucks has yet to come to the table

Coffee labor unions Atlanta
Amanda Rivera

Photograph by Bailey Garrot

From 4:30 a.m. onward, Amanda Rivera is busy on her opening shifts. First, she drives to the houses where she pet-sits and lets out the animals in the dark. Then, she rushes over to the Ansley Mall Starbucks to start everyone else’s day. After 10 years as a barista, Rivera moves quickly around the predawn cafe, arranging pastries in the display case and brewing five-pound bags of coffee. Before opening the doors, she takes a few minutes to have a cup herself. “I usually do a cold-brew,” Rivera says. “I need something that’s going to keep me awake.”

Rivera is a lead supervisor at a bustling Atlanta Starbucks—as well as the lead organizer behind an effort to form a union at the coffee shop, in hopes of obtaining better pay and more affordable healthcare for workers there. On June 23, Rivera and her coworkers voted 11–3 in favor of unionizing—a victory that turned out to be more symbolic than substantive, as Starbucks has refused to come to the table. In August 2021, a Buffalo location became the first-ever Starbucks to successfully organize, contributing to a wave of labor action around the country, including at other major corporations like Apple and Amazon. More than 200 Starbucks locations have now unionized, but progress toward a new contract has been slow.

“Once they won the vote, we knew it was going to be an even tougher battle from there,” says Kelsea Bond, cochair of the Atlanta chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which aided in organizing efforts at Ansley Mall and at another location on Howell Mill Road—currently, the only two unionized stores in Atlanta. Across the country, Starbucks has been accused of retaliating against unionized locations, including firing key organizers and threatening workers’ benefits. The National Labor Relations Board has filed a complaint against the company, which denies having engaged in illegal activity.

Rivera say she’s had her hours cut from 30 per week to 20, forcing her to find alternative sources of income to make ends meet. Still, she wants to see out the process of formalizing a union. “I just want to make Starbucks better, not just for me or for coffee farmers but for everyone involved,” Rivera said. “It’s an uncomfortable situation right now, but it’s nothing but growing pains.”

Born in Los Angeles and raised in West Virginia, Rivera grew up in a union family on her mother’s side; as a young girl, she read descriptions her great-grandfather wrote in a journal about back injuries he incurred working in the coal mines. Her father, an immigrant from El Salvador, told Rivera stories about her grandfather working in the coffee industry as a child, receiving little to no pay. As an adult, her grandfather suffered from severe arthritis in his hands. “I don’t take labor issues lightly because, if we don’t fight for our rights, there’s no reason why they won’t erode away,” Rivera says. “We’re fighting for the people that come after us.”

Back at work, Rivera proudly wears a Starbucks Workers United shirt. She opens the doors at six on the dot, and the regulars flood in. Here comes Frank, the attorney whose daughter just graduated from high school. Americano with four shots. George is behind him, like usual: venti coffee with a little bit of cream and nonfat milk.

“I love my job because I know I’m a positive part of somebody’s day. And they love the feeling of going somewhere and being able to say that they’re getting the usual,” Rivera said. “We don’t really have community anymore in our society, but working at Starbucks, you get to know people from all walks of life.”

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This article appears in November 2022 issue.