(Ron Cogswell/Creative Commons license via Flickr)

What’s it like to try to organize a union in one of the reddest states in the country?


When Starbucks employees in downtown Cheyenne first took their complaints public June 25 at a one-day strike to protest working conditions, one woman carried a sign on the picket line that read, “If baristas are out here, something is WRONG in there!”

Passing motorists gave the workers some immediate feedback.

“We had a lot of people honk in support,” recalled Christina Frakes, one of three shift supervisors leading the effort to start a union. “But others were flipping us off, booing us and telling us to get a life, and get a real job.”

She snickered at the latter comment because she’s worked for the company for a decade and liked her job until what she called a “toxic work environment” invaded. Frakes is hopeful that a union will help the company fulfill its mission to “create a genuine personal connection with each customer.”

Wyoming just celebrated Labor Day, however, overall hostility toward unions hasn’t noticeably lessened in much of this “right-to-work” state. But there are about 14,000 union members here, representing many trades and industries. And in some communities, unions are finally gaining ground.

Add baristas to the growth list. On July 31, Cheyenne Starbucks — by an 8-5 vote — joined Starbucks Workers United, becoming the first in Wyoming. The union now represents more than 8,500 workers at 340 outlets in 40 states.

Tammy Johnson, executive director of the Wyoming AFL-CIO, said she welcomes the Cheyenne Starbucks workers “to Wyoming’s growing union family, where we strive to build an environment where families can make a living wage, have safe jobs, and the ability to retire with dignity.”

She’s also been helping employees of Frontier Ambulance in Lander to unionize. In June, they voted 22-4 to join the United Steelworkers. 

But a similar effort was abandoned in Sweetwater County. On Aug. 7, employees of Castle Rock Ambulance Service filed a petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board. The Castle Rock Hospital District Board quickly challenged the proposed union election, maintaining the NLRB has no jurisdiction over Castle Rock because it’s an “exempt political subdivision.” The workers dropped the request on Aug. 28.

A major union success story in Wyoming happened when Yellowstone National Park rangers voted 66-15 in July to join the National Federation of Federal Employees. Johnson said she thinks Grand Teton National Park workers may be next to unionize.

“With the [supportive] position of the federal government and Joe Biden on unions, it’s a great time for federal employees to form or build unions in Wyoming,” Johnson said. 

The AFL-CIO official said one misconception Wyoming residents have about unions is that many believe they are illegal under the state’s right-to-work law. That’s not true; the law says workers can choose whether or not to join a union.

In the first half of the 20th century, unions transformed a massive industrial population and boosted America’s middle class. When corporations lobbied state lawmakers to pass right-to-work legislation, they greatly diluted the influence of unions and their collective bargaining power. Workers’ wages stagnated and benefits were taken away, while corporate executives enjoyed massive salaries and benefit packages.

Johnson said another reason Wyoming has difficulty building a strong workforce is unsafe working conditions. The state had the nation’s highest work-related death rate in 2022.

“Unions emphasize safety,” Johnson said. “We have an epidemic of workers falling off roofs, and those are non-union laborers. They don’t know when to stand up to their boss and say, ‘This is too dangerous.’ Unions protect their members so they don’t take such risks.”

Johnson is disappointed the Legislature overwhelmingly passed Senate File 147 – Government contracts-labor organization earlier this year. The law prohibits government entities from including union-specific language in construction-related contracts and grants.

Electricians, construction workers and plumbers all testified before a legislative panel that the bill will hurt union workers in Wyoming. Johnson wholeheartedly agreed.

“When [lawmakers] voted, they did it on a purely ignorant political position against unions,” she said. 

Johnson said she hopes the Cheyenne Starbucks workers will inspire union efforts for other Wyoming restaurant employees, who have “unconscionably low wages and an inability to collect their earned tips in many cases.” 

Frakes said she’s heard that some workers at the capital city’s two drive-thru Starbucks are interested in joining the union.

At the Central Avenue location, Frakes said the staff’s grievances were related to what she described as a hostile work environment, with management drastically cutting hours — sometimes by half — and favoring certain employees over others.

“We told them, ‘we need hours. We have families we’ve got to take care of,’” Frakes said. “I can’t support my family with only 24 hours in my work week, it’s just impossible. A lot of us had to forfeit sick time and vacation time just to make it up to 40.”

Frakes said like many union efforts in different work sectors, the company tried hard to keep the Cheyenne staff from joining.

“A couple of regional managers visited the Cheyenne store and tried to ‘gently’ dissuade us, like telling us if you unionize, these things you are accustomed to are going to be slower or won’t happen, and it’s not true,” Frakes said.

“They want you to be divided, and they want you to be scared of losing your job,” she added. “It’s just good old-fashioned Starbucks’ union-busting baloney.”

Johnson said the Cheyenne workers won despite “managerial efforts at retaliation and big corporate efforts to undermine their legal right to collectively bargain for decent working conditions.”

But Andrew Trull, Starbucks senior manager of corporate communications, denied any retaliation against pro-union employees. “We respect the right of all partners to make their own decisions about union representation, and we are committed to engaging in good faith collective bargaining,” he told Cowboy State Daily.

That bargaining has not started, but Frakes said since the union vote, she’s seen signs of progress, albeit slow. She said the cafe’s manager has left and been replaced. The shift manager said she hopes Starbucks “will go back to its roots,” trying to create a genuine personal connection with each customer.

“People don’t come to Starbucks to pay $7 for a medium drink,” Frakes said. “They come because we know them, we know their orders, we know their names and their children’s names. It’s about people, not how many customers you can rush through the line.”

I believe in unions, the right to collective bargaining, and their potential to make life better for workers and their families. One of the toughest things for employees to do is go all-in, unite to take on a large, intimidating corporation and together try to achieve demonstrable, positive change.

So, on Labor Day 2023, I congratulate the folks in Cheyenne, Fremont County and Yellowstone National Park who made the commitment to join a union, and hope more follow their example in the days ahead.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

Join the Conversation


Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. A few thoughts on unions. I was a member of the IBEW in Wyoming for 37 years and a local officer for many of those years. Most people who are anti-union have never been in one. Unions, especially at the local level, are democratic institutions – maybe that’s’ what scares owners and managers the most. Management doesn’t necessarily have the best ideas at all times. Unions provide an organized forum to settle work place problems. Companies and unions can and do work together under a win-win scenario. The whole theory of workers joining together for common goals works pretty well in my opinion. I met some pretty outstanding people from across Wyoming and the U.S. in my time as a union officer. I could go on but those are just a few of my thoughts.

  2. I don’t understand the pushback on organized unions. Better working conditions, better pay, and better benefits are all something people should want. Unions make those options available.

    The live to work folks that are anti-union are just cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

  3. As a 25 year retired IBEW member I can attest to the effectiveness of a united workforce when negotiating with management for better benefits and wages. One suggestion I would add when organizing groups of workers is to emphasize the importance of participation of the workers in the bargaining process. Unions are much like democracies. Without participation, they wither and die.

  4. Hurray for them! As a retired UAW member living in WY I see the ignorance and misinformation about being a union member all the time . Keep telling the truth and get rid of anti-union politicians!

  5. I agree wholeheartedly with this opinion piece. Many Americans have forgotten the hard earned gains in matters such as better wages, benefits and worker safety that union members made possible years ago. They were part of the foundation for creation the of the middle class that has made this country great. Unfortunately much of what was gained is taken for granted today and society has seen a definite erosion in worker wages, benefits and safety.

  6. THE COMPANY THAT DESERVES A UNION, GETS A UNION. Those that treat their employees right do not get organized.