Texas is a right-to-work state, with only 4% of employers unionized, but that hasn’t stopped workers in Houston from trying to unionize their workplaces.
Between late 2018 and June 2022, four companies were unionized in the city, according to the National Labor Relations Board — a team of professionals who work for fair labor practices — election data.
Hany Khalil, executive director of the Texas Gulf Coast Region Federation of Labor, a labor council that works to help other unions, said he believes being a right-to-work state means that workers are weak and divided with lower wages, fewer benefits and less than a voice at work.
“Texas is on the lower end of the spectrum [for unions]which is the case in all right to work states,” Khalil said.
According to the Texas Attorney General’s website, a right-to-work state means that employment cannot be denied because of membership or non-membership in a union or other labor organization.
However, due to the right to work, employees of an establishment can receive union benefits without being a union member or paying the monthly financial obligations of a union. It is illegal for an employer to require membership and payment as a condition of employment.
As part of a union, workers can also be protected against the Employment at Will Act – a law that allows an employer to terminate an employee for any reason or for no reason at all – according to the Federation American Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, a national and international labor federation.
Khalil said Texas unions are mostly in the Gulf Coast region. In Houston, they are seen in a variety of industries, but primarily in the petrochemical and shipping industries due to the Port of Houston, which is a historic base of the Texas labor movement. Workers in this region have been organizing since the 1930s, he said.
Starbucks is currently one of the top American companies when it comes to organizing, Khalil said. He said the movement within the company is one of the most recent efforts that has made workers realize that coming together as a team means more bargaining power, leading to workplace improvements. work, such as better wages, benefits and fair labor practices.
Texas is no exception to the Starbucks trend, he said. According to the NLRB, in June Austin and San Antonio both have two unionized Starbucks, while in July Denton has one, and more follow. Now a Montrose site is doing what it can to join the labor movement.
lead the charge
The Starbucks located at 2801 S. Shepherd Drive, Houston, is in the process of unionizing. The move follows a series of organizing efforts at Starbucks across the United States, beginning with two sites that successfully unionized in Buffalo, New York, last December. By early August, 229 Starbucks locations had voted to unionize, of which 208 were certified and ready to begin trading, according to the NLRB.
The Shepherd location is Starbucks’ first organizing effort to start in Houston. It was announced on July 18, when shift manager Josh DeLeon filed a petition with the NLRB saying he had 30% of the store’s workers on board with unionization.
The push to unionize both locally and countywide has to do with gaining stronger bargaining power, said DeLeon, who has worked at Starbucks for just under nine years.
“If each of us … goes to management or senior management and pleads for a pay rise, it probably won’t lead to much,” he said. “But if there’s a union that now represents all workers in the workplace, that’s a much bigger bargaining effort with employers.”
Montrose workers contacted Starbucks Workers United – a collective group of Starbucks employees who organize workplaces into unions with the help of Workers United Upstate, a progressive labor organization – to help them begin the process and provide legal advice.
The TGCALF also supports the Montrose site by offering general help and advice, Khalil said. He said that if the workers stay united, they will prevail.
Other Starbucks locations in the city are paying close attention to the effort, Khalil said, so he said he thinks others will follow if the Montrose location is successful. DeLeon agreed, noting that employees at other Starbucks locations were quick to contact him after he filed the petition, and many also began working with Workers United.
“I feel like the whole process has been an eye opener for a lot of people, especially people my age and younger who may not be familiar with the process. [and] are starting to learn that there are resources,” he said.
In an emailed statement from Starbucks, a spokesperson said the company is “listening to and learning from partners” in those stores and across the country.
“We have made it clear that we respect the voice of all of our partners and their legal right to organize,” Starbucks said in a statement. “From the start, we have also been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, with no union between us, and that belief has not changed. As we have said throughout, we will respect the NLRB process and bargain in good faith with stores that have chosen to be represented by Workers United. We hope the union will do the same.”
Steps to Unionization
There are several ways for workers in a facility to begin the unionization process: voluntary recognition in which workers can contact a union organizer or start their own union with a majority of signatures for union authorization cards and a employer recognizes the establishment as a union allowing the start of a bargaining process or an election with the NLRB.
When forming a union through an NLRB election, workers contact a union organizer or start their own union. However, 30% of co-workers must sign union permission cards in order to petition for a union election with the NLRB. If the union wins 50% plus one vote in an election, it is recognized as a union and the employer must bargain in “good faith” regarding working conditions. This is the process Houston Starbucks goes through.
Mail-in ballots are expected to be mailed to Upper Kirby Starbucks employees in early September, which they will use to vote on whether they support or oppose the formation of a union. Ballots will be mailed to the NLRB, which will conduct a count on Sept. 22, DeLeon said.
“We hope that we are not only the first store to win, but that we will get a unanimous decision victory,” he said.
However, labor and employment attorney Eric Nelson said the employer has opportunities that may be perceived by workers as a “threat or intimidation and illegal promises” under current law.
Once the permission card is signed, an employer can ask employees to attend a meeting where an employer can express hostility or objection to the organizer, Nelson said. However, a union does not have access to workers for a meeting to counter this.
Intimidation tactics will often cause workers to vote against forming a union during the election process, resulting in the loss of a case, Nelson said. Election data from the NLRB shows that one of five companies that have held union representation elections in Houston since 2019 lost – Univar Solutions Inc, a global chemicals and ingredients distributor.
“The current shortcoming is the union’s inability to explain why unionization would be good for them,” Nelson said.
The goals of the organizing effort at Upper Kirby Starbucks are similar to grievances voiced by employees at other Starbucks locations who have unionized, DeLeon said. There needs to be better compensation and a better work environment for employees with more support at the company level, he said.
Khalil said it was important to see young workers organize, especially given the economic circumstances the pandemic has brought – it has caused workers to reassess their priorities, which puts pressure on employers for better working conditions. He said young workers now recognize that there is no reason why they cannot join the wave of unionisation.
“[Workers] feel much more optimistic than before about how they can change situations in their workplace,” Khalil said. “Workers in Texas, and also in the South, recognize that too.”
Shawn Arrajj contributed to this report.