COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Tucked around the corner of North High Street and a mere crosswalk away from Ohio State University’s sprawling student union sits a Starbucks café. 

College students cramming for exams make temporary homes on the cafe’s front patio, not minding the near-constant sound of cars and construction around them. But college students also line up behind the coffee shop’s bar, furiously mixing and brewing, cleaning and sorting, taking orders and giving back lattes and iced teas. 

Of the store’s nearly 40 employees, the vast majority are full-time Ohio State students. Like many students, their job pays tuition, covers groceries, ensures they can pay rent on time. For many employees – whom Starbucks calls “partners” – the stakes are high. They cannot afford to lose their jobs. But they also cannot afford to work in what they said are unsustainable conditions.

That’s why on Monday, the majority of eligible workers at the 1784 N. High St. location voted to unionize. 

In a letter sent to Starbucks president and interim CEO Howard Schultz and undersigned by 21 of the store’s employees, workers accused the coffee giant of unfair scheduling, inconsistent disciplinary practices and of “reducing Partners to cogs in a machine.”

“As a campus store, our needs are specific: Partners travel to their homes during academic breaks and deserve to be secure in their employment when they return,” the letter read. “We work to pay rent and tuition, to keep food on the table, and to have healthcare. No one should be robbed of these basic rights in the name of corporate greed and favoritism.”

The Starbucks near Ohio State is the third in the Columbus region and ninth in Ohio to unionize, according to the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of Workers United.

Starbucks did not respond to NBC4’s request for comment.

Going ‘steadily downhill:’ baristas’ complaints

Hannah Wright, a shift supervisor, union organizer and recent Ohio State graduate, said for much of her four years at the High Street store, working conditions were manageable.

“We’ve seen the store be run really well,” Wright said. “We know that Starbucks can be, like, a well-run machine.”

It wasn’t until the start of fall semester, she said, that things began to go “steadily downhill.”

One of the chief complaints among baristas, Wright said, was the implementation of the “12-hour minimum:” Each quarter, hourly employees must average 12 hours of work per week – or face consequences.

But Wright said many employees are scheduled well under the 12-hour minimum, forcing them to pick up shifts at other stores in the district.

Paulina Salazar, a barista and sophomore studying computer and information science, said managers haven’t told workers what the consequences will be for averaging under 12 weekly hours, but many people can’t afford to find out. Instead, baristas spread themselves across the Columbus area, many of them scrambling to get to shifts 30 minutes away from their campus dorms – often without having cars.

“Our management was saying that, ‘Your transportation is your responsibility,'” Salazar said. “To be frank, everyone had a transportation plan to this specific location — not getting sent all over the district.”

Salazar started at Starbucks nearly two years ago in her hometown. When she requested to transfer to the store near Ohio State this year, she did so expecting managers would accommodate her class schedule.

“Starbucks as a company, at least when I got hired, really firmly stated that they were really big on, like, flexible schedules and any hours you wanted,” Salazar said. “Unfortunately, that changed recently, and it has really put a struggle on us students.”

Wright and Salazar said baristas regularly find themselves scheduled outside of availability. But when they can’t make those shifts because they’re in class, for instance, they said managers expect them to find their own replacements.

Salazar said the company also no longer promises job security for students who leave campus on academic breaks – even when they, like Salazar, work at Starbucks stores near home during that time. 

Other unions’ struggles with retaliation loom overhead

Voting to unionize doesn’t come without its risks, however, as demonstrated repeatedly at other Starbucks locations.

After Starbucks employees in Memphis, Tennessee, held a union organizing drive, the company fired seven baristas – including five members of the store’s union organizing committee. In May, the National Labor Relations Board sued the global coffee store chain for the firings, seeking a temporary injunction against the company. 

In its petition, the NLRB said Starbucks engaged in union-busting practices including disciplining employees who led the union drive, sending managers to surveil the store during union campaign events and in excess of normal supervision. and removing all pro-union materials from the store’s community bulletin board. In August, a federal judge agreed with the board, ordering Starbucks to rehire the seven employees.

The NLRB has filed more than a dozen legal complaints against Starbucks for union-busting practices at stores across the country, including in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Overland Park, Kansas; Buffalo, New York, and Philadelphia. And although courts have generally sided with workers, Wright said workers had many conversations before they signed union cards about the possibility of retaliation.

Workers face a turning point

Then in September, Wright said, an employee was fired for what managers typically considered a non-fireable offense – a tactic cited frequently in lawsuits against the company. At that moment, many workers decided the benefits of unionization far outweighed potential costs of retaliation.

“It gives us a unified voice,” Wright said of forming a union. “It’s easier for all of us to speak together, rather than all of us speaking one-on-one with our individual issues.”

Since voting to unionize Monday, Wright said the group hasn’t heard from managers or Starbucks. They’re also waiting to hear from the NLRB, which sets union election dates. 

Wright and Salazar said the union’s main demand is to engage in good-faith bargaining with the corporation.

“One of the biggest things about Starbucks as a company is that they have a seat open for baristas that is empty, and we want to fill that seat at the table,” said Salazar.

The other Columbus-area unionized Starbucks stores are Downtown at 88 E. Broad St. and in Westerville at 533 S. State St.