BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont met with four Starbucks workers, one from each of the three Buffalo-area locations attempting to unionize, as well as the youngest member of the unionization effort, to discuss their experiences with the effort Monday night.

The town hall was held via video conference on Sanders’ website and social media channels and started with Sanders providing statistics on Starbucks’ profits over the past year, juxtaposing those numbers with the financial status of many of the company’s employees.

“Our younger generation, through no fault of their own, now has a lower standard of living than their parents,” Sanders said. “In other words, the American Dream is going backwards; our younger people are poorer than their parents were at the same age.”

Sanders talked about how student debt, lower wages and higher housing costs have all contributed to this disparity. He said the average worker in America is making $40 per week less than a person their age would have 48 years ago, adjusted for inflation, adding that millennials earn about 20% less than baby boomers did at the same stage of their lives despite being better educated on average.

“During the height of the pandemic, 54% of young Americans [between the ages of 18 and 29] either lost their job or had to take a pay cut,” Sanders said. “More than any other age group.”

The first guest to join Senator Sanders was Michelle Eisen, leader of the Starbucks Workers United committee, who has been working at the company for 11 years, currently at the Elmwood location. Eisen said that 10 years ago, Starbucks was the company it professed to be, but since then, there has been a “very clear shift” in how the company values employees.

Eisen also added that she currently makes only 63 cents more than any new hire, despite her loyalty to the company over the past 11 years. She said the unionization effort is about having a say in pay, benefits and hours.

Gianna Reeve, a worker at the Camp Road Starbucks, and a student at the University at Buffalo, said the effort is about getting a seat at the table — literally.

“Every so often, and especially recently, we keep hearing this phrase: ‘At every chairman meeting, there is an empty chair that represents partners in our company and represents customers,'” she said. “Why isn’t that seat filled? You have over 8,000 stores in the United States and you will not fill that seat with an actual worker, someone who is actually making the drinks and is on the floor.”

Lexi Rizzo, a shift supervisor at the Cheektowaga location on Genesee Street, expressed her love for Starbucks. She has been working for the company for six years, four of which have been in Buffalo.

“I truly do love this company,” she said. “I felt proud to be with this company.”

She explained that working at Starbucks helped her to attain her Bachelor’s degree, get health insurance and meet so many great people. But she has also noticed a steady decline, describing workers’ struggles to reach the hourly threshold for benefits, seeing costs go up with benefits going down.

“I don’t agree that if we are unhappy with the way Starbucks is that we should just leave,” Rizzo said. “I believe that when you love something you fight to make it better.”

Sanders remarked that he enjoys Starbucks coffee, but later added that he was curious as to what it is like on the other side of the counter.

“A lot of what we hear is that a lot of people wonder why we want to have a job at a job that is unskilled labor. But I can tell you, we are not unskilled laborers,” Rizzo said. “We do not just pour coffee.”

Eisen said that coming in as a layperson, she had to take a crash course in labor law and realized that without a union, workers have very few protections.

Sanders told the employees they are an inspiration to him and thanked them, saying he looks forward to meeting with them again in the future.

On Tuesday morning, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson sent a letter to the company’s partners, and in it, he addressed the unionization efforts in Buffalo:

“That leads me to the situation in Buffalo, where this week partners in three individual stores will decide if they want to be represented by a union.

Unlike others in our industry who operate a franchise model, we have a network of company-operated stores that work together to create a better partner experience. Why does this matter? Many of you have told me you greatly value the flexibility to work between stores, to swap and pickup shifts, giving you the opportunity to connect with partners across different stores as one community. Because of this, we feel strongly that all partners in Buffalo should have a voice in the elections, which may unfortunately not be the case. While we recognize this creates some level of uncertainty, we respect the process that is underway and, independent of any outcome in these elections, we will continue to stay true to our Mission and Values.”

Kevin Johnson, president and CEO of Starbucks

MORE | Read the whole letter here.

Union ballots for the Elmwood Avenue, Camp Road and Genesee Street locations must be submitted by Wednesday and votes are scheduled to be counted at 1 p.m. on Thursday.

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