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Starbucks, Alyssa Sperrazza
Alyssa Sperrazza works as a barista at the Starbucks on Northwest 63rd Street and Grand Boulevard in Oklahoma City, and she is helping to organize her coworkers to form a union. (NonDoc)

Your morning coffee might soon be coming with a side of worker power.

On Feb. 9, employees at the Starbucks on Northwest 63rd Street and Grand Boulevard in Oklahoma City announced their intention to unionize. Of the approximately 9,000 company-operated Starbucks stores in the United States, the location is the 97th to file for unionization, and it was the first to do so in Oklahoma. Two more stores, one in Norman and another in Oklahoma City, have since announced plans to unionize.

An ongoing wave of unionization efforts in North American Starbucks stores started in Buffalo, New York, last year. Employees there and in other locations that subsequently launched union drives say they have seen extreme pushback from the company’s management. In Memphis, Tennessee, seven Starbucks partners (as Starbucks calls its employees) said they were fired after becoming involved in a unionization effort, although the company has said they were fired for other reasons. In Phoenix, Arizona, the National Labor Relations board issued a formal complaint against Starbucks for retaliating against unionizing employees.

In this Q&A, Alyssa Sperrazza, a barista at the 63rd and Grand Starbucks who is part of the store’s union organizing committee, talks about what it’s like to work at Starbucks, what changes she would like to see in the company and the wildest orders she has received.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How long have you been working at Starbucks?

I’ve been a barista at Starbucks for over two years now. I’m the classic student/barista combo! I am currently finishing up my master’s in global affairs at OU and will begin at OU Law in the fall. I’m from New Jersey, but Oklahoma has been home for over a decade, so I consider myself an honorary Okie.
 
Many of us are very familiar with Starbucks as customers, but what is it like being on the other side of the espresso machine? Are there any aspects of the job that people might find surprising or interesting? And how much do baristas make these days?

I love making coffee and have been a barista since high school, so the other side of the espresso machine is my comfort zone. Coffee is still part of the service industry, though, so it does come with the typical difficulties many workers face in restaurants and shops everywhere: rude customers, bad days where everything spills, the pressure to get products out quickly, etc.

People often don’t think about how wearying it can be dealing with rude customers day in and day out. Don’t get me wrong, there are some customers that make the job worth it, ones who are incredible and I look forward to seeing them daily, but the difficulties of the job do weigh heavy sometimes.

Pay varies based on how long you’ve been with the company. When I first started, I made under $10 an hour, receiving raises periodically, but nothing of much substance. We are set to receive $15 an hour beginning this summer, which is a massive improvement, and I know a lot of my coworkers are excited. The reality is, it’s hard to make a living on a barista salary, like many service industry jobs. Many of my coworkers have to have two jobs to make ends meet, and if I wasn’t in school I would certainly be joining them.

How did the union effort kick off, and what motivated you to be involved?

We all saw the news coming out of Buffalo, that partners at certain stores were beginning to unionize. It was incredible to watch, and I know I was rooting for them. It took a minute to even consider the possibility of doing that here in OKC. I knew a couple of partners at my store were throwing the idea around, and we quickly realized enough of us were actually wanting this. For me personally, the benefits of a union were enough to make it a no-brainer: ensuring a livable wage, increased benefits, more input in store policies, etc.

Working through the pandemic was so incredibly difficult, as I know it was for many workers, but it also showed a lot of cracks in the service industry. I hope this wave of unionization continues to push other employees at different stores and companies to join this modern labor movement.

What do you hope to gain by unionizing?

A liveable wage has been at the top of the list. There’s no reason to work for a billion-dollar company and have so many workers struggling to pay their bills. I know many partners have also been taking a hard look at the benefits offered and ways they can be improved to meet more needs. Other issues we hope to address are seniority pay, increased job security, and better policies that would protect partners against aggressive customers.

But we aren’t just looking at what we can gain at the negotiating table. We also are trying to see the ways in which our current system can be improved. I know everyone in my store loves our team, loves our manager, loves this company, and I can list out the ways Starbucks has done a lot of good, but there are issues that need to be addressed. We are hoping that by having these talks and unionizing, we will have a more direct path toward addressing them.

What has the reaction been from Starbucks — both at the national level and with local management? Have things been tense?

Our store has not seen any backlash or negative reactions from management. We were the first in Oklahoma to file and have been overjoyed to see other stores sign up or reach out about the process. We were certainly prepared for all the tension and issues we’ve been seeing at other stores across the country after we publicly released our letter to CEO Kevin Johnson, but things have been fairly quiet, and we are all thankful for that. If anything, the support we’ve been getting from customers and the community has made the process so enjoyable.

Where are you in the process, and what comes next?

We’ve filed with the National Labor Review Board to have an election. And we just received word that Starbucks has agreed to recognize the union, which means we can go forward without a hearing. They’ll be mailing ballots to partners in April, and they should be counted May 6. We are very excited to have an election in sight! Our union committee has done an amazing job ensuring this process has gone smoothly and efficiently, but I don’t think any of us thought it would happen so quickly!

Can you recall any particularly bizarre orders you’ve gotten during your time at Starbucks? And are there certain kinds of orders that baristas dread receiving?

There is one word that comes to mind, and that is “TikTok” (where a number of elaborate drink orders have gone viral). We’re a coffee company that prides itself on customizing any order to ensure a wonderful experience, but TikTok is some baristas’ worst nightmare. I personally don’t have one, so I miss out on all the videos explaining some of these concoctions, but they have certainly made the job more interesting.

We do still get the occasional request for a banana in the frappuccinos or asked whether or not we sell Dr. Pepper. I did have a guy come in and order every single syrup in his latte, which didn’t work well because there’s no way they all mix properly. He just took a sip, smiled, and left. I often wonder how on earth he could drink it, but to each their own. Crazy orders keep us on our toes!

One of my favorite conspiracy theories is that Starbucks employees are encouraged to misspell customers’ names because the company essentially gets free advertising when people post pictures of their cups on social media. Is there any truth to that?

Ah, the infamous question…. I wish I could say yes, because then it would excuse my bad spelling. But, unfortunately, I try my hardest and still get some wrong. We all know the running joke, and I’m sure there are partners who try to have fun with the names, but overall I cannot confirm that theory. Although I have joked that Starbucks should have a company-wide spelling bee, just to keep laughing about it.