On the evening of Tuesday, May 10, Michaela Sellaro and her coworkers, all of whom work at the Starbucks on East Colfax Avenue and Milwaukee Street, gathered around a laptop to watch as a member of the National Board of Labor Relations, an independent federal agency that oversees unions and labor rights, counted their votes to be unionized via Zoom.

With a unanimous vote of 13 to 0, their Starbucks store became the first in Denver to join the Colorado Care Workers Unite union. After the final vote had been counted, the workers cheered.“We are ecstatic,” Sellaro, who has worked for three years as a shift supervisor, says. “It feels so good, especially after what we’ve been through.”

Starbucks workers around the country are demanding higher wages and better working conditions from the global coffee corporation. In April, a Starbucks in Superior became the first location of the chain in Colorado to unionize. Earlier this year, employees at the Starbucks where Sellaro works went on strike after several members of their team had been assaulted by customers during the winter. “I was pepper-sprayed at the drive through window,” Sellaro says. “They [Starbucks] provided us with a crisis counselor, but despite that, it didn’t feel like the threat to our safety was taken as seriously as it should have been.”

Sellaro sustained minor chemical burns, but she says feeling unsafe at work is not uncommon for her and her coworkers. That feeling was exacerbated during the pandemic, when some customers refused to wear masks. In December 2021, employees in the store filed 45 incident reports, an average of more than one a day. A cold drink was thrown in a barista’s face.

“We didn’t have working security cameras,” Vanessa Castro Lopez, a shift supervisor, says. “There was continuous bottle throwing at our store, too, and there was no accountability.”

After the March strike, Andrea Streedain the regional director of operations at Starbucks, who was not in Colorado on the day of the walkout, sent a letter to the corporation’s regional partners, in which she called the workers’ protest “unnecessary, dangerous, and inconsistent,” saying they resorted to “physical acts of intimidation.”

Media outlets that covered the walkout showed workers picketing in front of the store. There were no reports of violence, and several workers in attendance said the strike was peaceful. Streedain declined to comment for this story.

Since the first Starbucks store was unionized in Buffalo, New York, last December, the corporation has been accused by the National Board of Labor Relations of employing union-busting tactics, such as penalizing union-organizing workers and, in some cases, firing employees over union support. Starbucks, in response, has called the allegations false and set up a website to dispute the claims and detail their position on unionization.

For Castro Lopez and her coworkers, joining Workers United is a major victory, and in the coming weeks, the employees will meet with their union representative and use collective bargaining with Starbucks in an effort to improve workplace conditions.

“The organizing wave won’t be stopping anytime soon,” says Pete DeMay, the organizing director of Workers United midwest and mountain west region. Indeed, several other Starbucks in Denver, including the one on Columbine Street in Cherry Creek, are expected to cast their ballots to become part of the same union in the coming weeks. “I think it’s become a national phenomenon now,” DeMay says, “of Starbucks workers wanting to join our union.”

(Read more: Why Ski Patrollers at Keystone and Breckenridge Considered Unionizing)

Fiona Murphy
Fiona Murphy
Fiona writes and produces multimedia stories for 5280.com, as well as oversees social media strategy for 5280’s and 5280 Home’s accounts.