At just 19, Joseph Thompson became the unlikely leader of the most advanced effort to unionize Starbucks stores in California.
This effort resulted in a big step forward. On Tuesday, Workers United – a Service Employees International Union-affiliated union representing unionized stores – reached an agreement with Starbucks to hold an election by mail.
With Thompson at the helm, the grassroots movement began with two stores — Ocean Street and Mission Street — filing a joint petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board. in February. On April 19, the NLRB will send ballots to approximately 61 eligible voting members between the two Starbucks locations; they will have three weeks to vote.
Thompson is a unique labor organizing figure, just a freshman at UC Santa Cruz majoring in environmental studies — who also recently filed for the Democratic nomination in the reconfigured 28th Assembly District of the state. That might sound like a lot to bite, but Thompson — who uses gender-neutral them/them pronouns — is used to taking on a heavy workload and cites his great-grandfather for his interest in labor rights.
A decorated high school debater in Texas, Thompson put those debating skills to good use.
It was COVID that drove their organizing work. Thompson worked at the busy Starbucks location at Ocean and Water streets in Santa Cruz, adjacent to the county courthouse.
Abrasive and aggressive customers made it increasingly difficult for staff to work, they said.
Deciding in November it was time to take a stand, Thompson coordinated with his colleagues, Workers United – which represents about 85,000 workers in Canada and the United States – and other local organizers. The Santa Cruz Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America provided constant support and guidance throughout the process.
The Ocean Street and Mission Street stores will be the second and third California stores to go to an election, second only to the Roseville store. If a majority of employees vote in favor of the union, that would make them the first three stores in California to have their unions certified. The Starbucks store at 41st Avenue and Clares Street entered the pipeline shortly thereafter and was officially dropped on March 30. As part of the agreement between Workers United and Starbucks, the 41st Avenue store and a store in Mill Valley will also have a mail-ballot on May 13.
Looking forward to Election Day, Thompson sat down with Lookout to discuss motivations, inspirations and the road ahead.
“The organization gives me energy, and because I’m young it will be a lot easier for me to keep up,” Thompson said.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Lookout: How does it feel to finally have an election date and be among a handful nationwide?
Joseph Thompson: It’s incredible. Finally, this is our store’s first big win, and we have the ability to say this is what we do and fight for what we want. We’ve been working for months, and not only were we able to get a vote for Ocean and Mission, but also for the other two.
For me, this is the most important thing because Starbucks will continue to try to delay as much as possible, and with [CEO] Howard Schultz arrives, I don’t know how this will affect all the different union votes. But for me, we now have a clear path forward.
Lookout: What should you do to prepare for the vote?
Thompson: We will start with campaigns and tell workers to vote. We’re going to be working with the California Labor Federation as well as, I believe, the Monterey Bay Labor Council, to really make sure that we win those two stores by a huge majority.
This includes making sure workers know how to fill out their ballots, returning them on time, and getting as involved as possible. We want it to be a fair process. I would say Starbucks has not been inclusive in this process. They wanted to delay the votes and completely stop the movement and we want the exact opposite. We want to be able to make a decision that we have wanted to make for months.
Lookout: Was there anything about the process that surprised you?
Thompson: How long did it take. This process needs to be streamlined, especially in 2022. With the growth of the workers’ rights movement, we’re looking at maybe thousands of elections coming next year, and we really need to consider reforming the way we organize union elections.
Three weeks is a long time for a postal vote. We have the technology, we could hold votes on mobile or using other electronic means. It seems like that would be the fastest way to count all those ballots. So I think there needs to be a reform to make the process transparent.
Lookout: You’ve been really busy lately, and now you’re running for State Assembly. Besides organizing Starbucks and the university, what inspired you to get into running?
Thompson: I told people I had nothing against Gail (Pellerin, a longtime Santa Cruz County clerk who is also running in the 28th Assembly District). I actually had a great conversation with her, and we have a lot in common and a lot of support for a lot of different issues that we both agree on. I think it boils down to one clear thing and that is that we specifically need young people in power representing the new generation of organizers and workers to really move the labor movement forward in a way that we don’t have seen so far. I believe that elections should be a clear, fair and transparent process.
Lookout: How is it to navigate this landscape at such a young age? How does your experience differ from that of others and how does your age play a role in this?
Thompson: You know, I think all it really takes is determination and the willingness to put in the time and effort. I’ll be honest with you, last night I slept for about three hours, but I feel great! It’s weird, but organizing gives me energy, and because I’m young, it’s going to be a lot easier for me to keep it going for a little while. But this is the time when I can be out there and talk to people, knock on doors, call people, and use technology to engage young people from an early age. It is important to register them on the electoral lists, but also to ensure that they show up on election day or that they vote by mail and that they make it clear to them that their vote counts. There are people who come from working class backgrounds who have never done this kind of thing before.
I guess my main goal in organizing and running for office is just to unite people. The East an alternative to what we have and a lot of people understand that. The minimum wage just hit $15, but it looks like a living wage is closer to $22 an hour. I want people to know that if you get deported or have medical care issues, there are people struggling just like you and we need to address those issues.
Lookout: Is your family a working family? If so, then is it fair to say it’s inspirational?
Thompson: My great-grandfather was in the Pacific Railroad Union, but unfortunately I never met him. But I remember my dad talking about him, so my roots have a lot of union involvement and it really shows that these ideas can still pick up in future generations and that we can continue to fight for these benefits. But aside from family history, there are probably 1,000 other reasons why young people need to realize the power of unions and reclaim that lost knowledge.
Lookout: How did the idea of forming a union come about?
Thompson: Jeb (Purucker) is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter here, and one day [in November] I was helping him get settled in for the UC-AFT strike. We were just talking through unions and unions, and I asked him what we needed to do at Starbucks, and he gave me a book called “Secrets of a Successful Organizer.” He also gave advice on how to have meetings with employers, keep everyone safe, and more. He was a great resource, and he still leads the Workforce Working Group for the DSA Chapter, so I always ask his advice.
However, I confess that I did not think of a union from the start. We didn’t know the power of a union until we started talking about what to do, but there was always something on my mind that made me realize that it’s about a billion dollar company, and I’m still struggling and living paycheck to paycheck. So I knew something was wrong and we could do better.
Lookout: It’s obvious that the future awaits you. What are you studying at the moment and what do you plan to pursue in the future?
Thompson: Of course, my biggest goal right now is to continue the labor struggle and then to rally my campaign. I’m going to take it out official questions which I will talk about the most, and the most important is work. Not only will I support the organizing efforts of the office of the Assembly, but also, overall, I will promote democracy in the workplace. I think the Starbucks organization is leading the way to be able to help all of their stores. Starbucks is expanding so people can see what’s happening here, learn more, then copy that same movement, and it will continue to spread.
In school, I study environmental studies with a concentration in politics. I lived in Texas for the last three years before coming to UCSC, and I was one of the top six debaters in the state. I love talking about politics and solutions, but one of my favorite things to talk about is something called brownfield redevelopment. Essentially, it’s when you take a piece of land that the Environmental Protection Agency calls unsafe and redevelop it in a way that it’s community-focused and can allow for affordable housing. It’s sustainable and won’t cause displacement and gentrification, so that’s one of the main things I’m going to look at for investing resources at the state level.