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Workers at downtown Denver Starbucks file paperwork for vote to unionize

Some workers at the location at the corner of 16th Street and Tremont Place look to join other Starbucks locations that have unionized.

DENVER — The 16th Street Mall can prove to be a busy place. 

Especially if you work at a busy stop like Starbucks

"Yeah, I really like this job. It's honestly it's like a cornerstone of the community. We can meet a lot of new people. We get to make real connections -- its a very nice job," said shift supervisor Ryan Dinaro. 

As an employee of Starbucks for three years, he's only worked at the location near the corner of 16th and Tremont for around a month, but has already seen his fair share of safety concerns. 

"We have to call up security to deal with customers that have explosive reactions to manage things. And it's been challenging out here," he said, adding that drug use has also been an issue lately. "We have a new DM (District Manager) who's coming in and talking to the mayor's office. They're trying their best to get some things implemented, and we haven't had any of the changes that we've been asking for the safety."

Dinaro said it's gotten to the point that he and some of his co-workers feel that there should be a larger push for change. 

"We want to feel safe in the place we work. We want to feel like we're being paid for what fair wages for the roles we've taken on at the store," he said. 

And so, the Starbucks location he's at officially filed paperwork to set up a vote on whether or not they would join the labor union Workers United CMRJB in order to join the Starbucks Workers United movement, like other locations have. 

Credit: Alex Castillo
Ryan Dinaro, a shift supervisor for Starbucks, stands in front of the location at 16th and Tremont in downtown Denver.

The push to unionize

Dinaro says the people causing disruptions at their Starbucks appear to be facing different social issues. 

"I see a lot of people facing drug dependencies and facing housing issues. It's more of an issue with them creating a disruptive environment. I've seen people just explode for no reason, and it's sometimes it's just people you wouldn't expect," he said, adding that there have been no instances of people getting hurt. 

"We have plenty of people who are interested in starting this union, we have plenty of people who are dedicated to it. The reason why people didn't sign is because retaliation from Starbucks," he said. 

Starbucks has, in the past, expressed its acknowledgement of workers' right to organize. 

In an email to 9NEWS, a Starbucks spokesperson said in part, "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. Rossann Williams, EVP and president, North America, has also shared with our partners that we respect their right to organize and will bargain in good faith." 

“The vote outcomes will not change our shared purpose or how we will show up for each other. … We will keep listening, we will keep connecting and we will keep being in service of one another because that’s what we’ve always done and what it means to be partner," a letter in December from Starbucks read.

"I think they're a good company. They just need more partner input and we need to be at the table," Dinaro said. 

Credit: FILE
King Soopers employees picketing outside of a King Soopers in January.

Union trends in Colorado

Action taken by unions have gained national attention in recent months. 

In Colorado, 2022 started with King Soopers employees striking outside of several Denver metro locations. 

According to Cornell's Labor Action Tracker, nationwide, between Jan. 1, 2021 and March 4 of that same year, there were 79 strikes and labor protests. 

For that same time frame this year nationwide, there have been 118 strikes and labor protests. 

However, union membership in Colorado has taken a dip since 2018, at its last peak. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021, 6.5% of wage and salary workers in Colorado were union members, compared to 7.4% in 2020.

It's a number that's below the national average of 10.3%. 

"So there's two sets of reasons for why unionization might drop. One is that workers believe that they're getting more of what they need from their employers without the benefit of collective bargaining," explained Jeffrey Zax, a professor of economics at CU Boulder, who specializes in labor economics. "The other is that employers are opposing unionization more effectively now at the moment. My guess is that it's probably the first reason, rather than the second."

Right now, he explains that this is a time in American economic history when labor workers seem to have a lot of economic power. 

"And my guess is that employers are recognizing that by trying to anticipate the demands of most workers and trying to satisfy them to the extent they can, and they've been somewhat successful. And as a consequence, the demand for collective bargaining for collective action on the part of workers has diminished a bit," he said. 

He adds that if employers are not that attuned to what's currently going on, they may be trying to retain workers in job circumstances that aren't consistent with the current market, and in said circumstances, he'd expect unions. 

"I think the market sort of separates into two branches. There are the employers who are going to recognize that they're under pressure from their workers and are going to voluntarily respond to that with the intent of keeping good workers," he said. "There are going to be employers who don't get it and the employers who don't get it, they're going to suffer the risk of seeing their workers look to unionize."

Overall, he explains that the question of how workers are treated has gotten universal appeal.

"And the question of how the current economic circumstances which make workers relatively scarce compared to what they've been in the past and give workers an advantage in the labor market they haven't had in the past, well, that should be a moment of celebration for just about everyone, except, of course, the employers," he explained. "If workers are in an employment context where the employer is unresponsive, then the workers, in some sense, are doing the employer a favor by organizing, unionizing if they need to. So as to make it clear to the employer the economic reality in which the employer is currently functioning."

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