Senior unionizes South Philadelphia Starbucks

Maddie Levans started working for Starbucks in high school and wants more accountability in the company.

Maddie Levans, a shift supervisor at the Starbucks on 9th Street near South, looks into the lobby from the bar. | NOEL CHACKO / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Though Maddie Levans loves working as a Starbucks shift supervisor and interacting with her regular customers, being disrespected by her bosses during the COVID-19 pandemic prompted her to start unionizing. 

“We’re getting told, ‘you have so many great benefits,’ and I was drinking the Kool-Aid,” said Levans, a senior political science major. 

On Jan. 28, the Starbucks on 9th Street near South filed a petition to unionize with the National Board of Labor Relations and posted a letter on Twitter formally announcing their intention to unionize. Levans has led her location’s union efforts by coordinating with Workers United organizers. 

Levans started working at a Starbucks in her hometown of York, Pennsylvania, during her junior year of high school and transferred to 16th Street near Market her freshman year at Temple University. She now works at the Starbucks on 9th Street near South. 

During her five years at Starbucks, there have been issues between Levans and management, she said. But it wasn’t until after she called out sick due to contracting COVID-19, and had her boss tell her to plan her sick days better, that unionizing became a priority. 

“I’ve never been told anything that made me that angry,” Levans said. “At the time, I held my tongue, but I’m thinking, ‘how do I tell every virus, illness, anything, to give me a three to five-day window of when I’m going to get infected with it, so I can call out effectively?’”  

She is hopeful that unionizing will increase pay transparency, accountability for management and enable employees to manage conflicts with their bosses better, she said. 

However, Starbucks believes that unions will not help employees or the company.

“From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed,” a Starbucks spokesperson wrote in an email to the Temple News. “Starbucks’ success — past, present and future — is built on how we partner together, always with our mission and values at our core.”

Levans started organizing the union by asking her coworkers their thoughts on unions during her afternoon shifts and her coworker who worked in the mornings talked to employees during those shifts, Levans said. 

Levans gathered employees’ phone numbers in case Starbucks switched schedules around to separate potential unionizers and got union cards, so employees could sign up to be represented by Workers United, and created a Discord server for signers, she said.

“I’d bring three or four union cards with me and just keep it in my bag and anybody who I knew was a card signer or was planning on signing, we would do that,” Levans added. 

In high school, Levans worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and met a campaign organizer who introduced her to leftist politics. She continued learning about it at Temple from Scott Ritner, a former political theory professor who now teaches at SUNY Potsdam, who she took three classes with, Levans said. 

Ritner is proud of her initiative.

“She really takes the time to think, not just about the readings, but about what that means for the world she lives in,” Ritner said. 

Ritner was not surprised when Levans told him she started unionizing and has offered her support and advice based on his own experiences as a student activist, he said. 

Lua Riley, a 2020 advertising alum, has worked at the 9th Street and South Starbucks for three months and loves working with Levans because she is a considerate and dedicated team member and has a good sense of humor.

“[Levans] is very dedicated to getting everything done right,” Riley said. “But [Levans] also is going to make sure you have a good laugh while you do it.”

Levans is proud of what she and her coworkers have accomplished. 

“It feels a lot better to know that we’re actually going to be able to fix the issues that have been plaguing us for so long,” Levans said.

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