Workers at 3 Wisconsin Starbucks locations strike on Red Cup Day

Unionized stores walked out on the company's biggest promotion of the season to protest inadequate staffing

a man speaks into a bullhorn surrounded by people holding signs
Evan McKenzie, a union organizer and barista at the Capitol Square Starbucks in Madison, addresses a rally on State Street. Robert D’Andrea/WPR

Workers at three unionized Starbucks locations in Wisconsin went on strike Thursday to hinder the coffee giant’s most lucrative seasonal promotion known as Red Cup Day.

Two stores in Madison and one in Plover joined about 200 stores nationwide in walking out on the company’s giveaway of holiday-themed reusable red cups. Last year, the company said the promotion was its highest single sales day of all time, despite strikes at more than 100 U.S. stores.

More than 360 U.S. Starbucks stores have voted to unionize since 2021, according to the National Labor Relations Board. But the company has yet to reach a labor agreement with any of those stores.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Union organizers in Madison said the action is intended to put pressure on the company to negotiate a contract. They said the company has refused to bargain with the nationwide union and instead wants to negotiate with individual stores.

Starbucks said it is the union that is holding things up.

“Starbucks has proposed to begin contract negotiations for our State & Lake store on two separate occasions and Workers United did not agree to meet,” Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull said in a statement to WPR referring to the company’s Madison locations that were striking Thursday.

“Union representatives met with Starbucks for a bargaining session at our Capital Square store on (November 1). Unfortunately, Workers United representatives for each store have declined to confirm all other proposed sessions,” he said.

The union filed an unfair labor practices claim against the company for forcing employees to handle more orders during such promotions as Red Cup Day without increasing staffing.

“We’ve had for the past couple of months many surprise promotional days that we were not prepared for,” said Senua O’Connor, an organizer and barista at Madison’s Capitol Square location.

She said the store would be informed just days ahead of a “buy one, get one free” promotion.

“We would have maybe two, maybe three people on a good day trying to run a promotional day, which is extremely difficult,” she said.

Trull said locations have the flexibility to adjust staffing levels.

“We’re also working to implement additional store scheduling improvements to provide all hourly U.S. partners more stability, flexibility and consistency in their weekly work schedules,” he said.

Earlier this month, the company said it would increase wages and benefits for non-union stores.

people holding protest signs
Starbucks workers and supporters gather for a rally on State Street in Madison on November 16, 2023. Robert D’Andrea/WPR

The Madison stores also went on strike in June as part of the union’s Strike with Pride event to protest the company preventing Pride month decorations.

But O’Connor, a transgender woman, said she stays at the job because of her store’s culture – and to fight for a union.

“I’ve found a place that’s accepting of queer people, of trans people,” she said. “Not because of the corporation in any way, but more so because of the culture of being a barista. There’s a lot of trans and queer people who work here.”

O’Connor said she makes $15 an hour, which she said is in line with other service industry jobs in Madison. She values having health insurance, though she said the coverage offered is “the best you can get at the lowest possible tier of a job.”

“As much as I’m willing to say bad things about what Starbucks is doing, this is a job I want,” she said. “Really, what we’re fighting for is to turn this place into a place that doesn’t have such high turnover. We want to have a culture. We want to be part of the community, and the only way I see that happening is getting our benefits better, getting our pay better, making people want to stay.”

Organizers in Madison said the stores will open again on Friday at 5 a.m.