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.