Corporate removal of Pride displays prompts local Starbucks strike

Amid ongoing unionization efforts, workers at Columbus locations downtown and in Grandview went on strike Wednesday to oppose the removal of Pride displays and to stand up for workers’ rights.
A sign taped outside the Starbucks at the intersection of East Broad and South Third streets downtown on Wednesday.
A sign taped outside the Starbucks at the intersection of East Broad and South Third streets downtown on Wednesday.Andy Downing

Partners at a pair of Columbus Starbucks locations went on strike Wednesday in response to a pattern of what the workers called intolerant and discriminatory behavior from company management both locally and across the nation. 

The strike, which led to daylong closings at stores in Grandview (1085 W. Fifth Ave.) and downtown (88 E. Broad St.), was part of a national effort led by Starbucks Workers United to oppose changes in Starbucks’ corporate policy that its members say has led to the removal of flags, symbols, and other imagery expressing support for Pride month and LGBTQ+ rights.

Shortly after 7 a.m. on Wednesday, roughly a half dozen strikers could be seen standing outside of the Broad Street location wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Be gay, organize.” Other signs were taped to pillars outside the shop (“Strike with Pride”), and workers chatted casually with the handful of early morning commuters that happened by.

Across town in Grandview, a similar scene unfolded, with Starbucks workers and community supporters gathering outside the store well before dawn. Spirits were high, and veteran union organizers reported seeing many workers who had not been previously engaged with union-led activities turning out to show their support. In a show of solidarity, representatives from the Ohio State University Nurses Union dropped by to deliver donuts to the striking Starbucks partners.

Striking Starbucks workers on South Third Street downtown on Wednesday.
Striking Starbucks workers on South Third Street downtown on Wednesday.Andy Downing

Although Starbucks corporate management denied that any change in policy has taken place, Starbucks workers (known as partners within the company) across the nation have reported systematic and apparently coordinated removal of Pride flags, pins, decorations, and even Starbucks merchandise expressing support for the LGBTQ+ community.

At the recently unionized Starbucks on West Fifth Avenue in Grandview, workers raised the Pride flag in front of the store on May 30 in preparation for Pride month. The flag was subsequently removed by the district manager, prompting a protest at the store by both partners and members of the community who expressed support for the LGBTQ+ community and workers’ rights. In a viral video from the event, the manager admits to having taken down the flag, and a customer can be seen returning a drink purchased from the store in protest.

Similar incidents have taken place across the nation, although Starbucks’ corporate spokespeople have denied that any policy change has occurred. The removal of Pride decorations at Starbucks comes at a time when several other major brands have been the target of right-wing fueled backlash over perceived support for LGBTQ+ rights. Bud Light has recently been the subject of boycott following the release of an ad featuring a transgender woman, resulting in a sudden drop in stock price and a significant loss of market share. Target has also removed Pride decorations and merchandise from its stores, claiming that the displays were leading to confrontations between workers and customers that were detrimental to the safety of shoppers and employees.

However, Starbucks partners insist that the risk of consumer backlash does not explain the recent actions of Starbucks corporate management, especially given the historic reputation of Starbucks as a diverse and forward-leaning brand. 

Instead, union leaders believe that the removal of Pride imagery from Starbucks stores is an intentional tactic to target Starbucks Workers United. LGBTQ+ employees have been on the leading edge of the efforts to unionize Starbucks locations nationwide, with many members of the LGBTQ+ community serving openly in highly visible leadership positions within the union. According to SWU, Starbucks recently raised health insurance premiums for transgender partners. 

The desire to form a more inclusive and accepting workplace has been a common motivator for many within the unionization effort, with organizers seeking to link the day-to-day struggles of individual workers at their stores to the larger fight for LGBTQ+ inclusion and workers’ rights at the national level. 

Some partners believe efforts by Starbucks management to cast the LGBTQ+ community as “divisive” or “potentially offensive” could be aimed at undermining solidarity within Starbucks Workers United. “Management knows that the trans and queer community forms the backbone of our union. This is an intentional effort to show that trans and queer people are not welcome at Starbucks,” said Shenby Gottschlich, a partner at the Grandview Starbucks. 

More than 300 Starbucks locations have unionized across the nation, but Starbucks corporate management has thus far declined to negotiate with Starbucks Workers United, even as unionization efforts have suppressed Starbucks’ stock value.

“We had people here today getting involved in the union for the first time,” Gottschlich said. “They know about what’s happening in the negotiations and what the union is fighting for. The longer Starbucks waits to negotiate the stronger we become.”

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