Unionized Starbucks workers walked off the job on Thursday to press their demands for contract negotiations and spotlight their complaints over staffing and scheduling issues.
The union representing the striking workers, Starbucks Workers United, said the walkout involved thousands of workers at more than 200 stores. Starbucks said workers were protesting at fewer than 100 stores, with most of those stores remaining open. The company has roughly 9,300 corporate-owned stores in the United States.
The stoppage coincides with an annual Starbucks promotion, Red Cup Day, in which customers receive bright-red reusable cups if they order a holiday-themed beverage, like a Sugar Cookie Almondmilk Latte.
Starbucks Workers United has said events like Red Cup Day force employees to handle more orders than usual but without sufficient staffing.
Unionized workers say the company has refused to bargain over staffing and scheduling issues that are particularly acute on such days, and the union filed an unfair labor practice claim with the National Labor Relations Board over the issue this year.
The union represents more than 9,000 Starbucks workers at more than 300 stores across the country. Employees at some unionized stores started the walkout on Wednesday with the aim of surprising the company, which was aware of Thursday’s action.
Starbucks says the union is the side that has prevented bargaining sessions by insisting on conducting the meetings online, with rank-and-file members observing, rather than having negotiating teams sit down in person.
“We hope that Workers United’s priorities will shift to include the shared success of our partners and negotiating contracts for those they represent,” Andrew Trull, a company spokesman, said in a statement.
The union is calling on the company to shut down mobile orders on promotional days, which it says have become more frequent.
Daisy Federspiel-Baier, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks in Seattle, said her store received more than 200 orders in a half-hour during an October promotion in which customers could get 50 percent off any drink. The store was so overwhelmed that some drinks and food went to waste and orders were halted, Ms. Federspiel-Baier said.
“I watched as baristas verged on a state of mental breakdown, being verbally berated by customers and feeling pressure from bosses to keep performing when it was unreasonable to do so,” she said.
In a statement, Starbucks acknowledged that promotions “may change store patterns and traffic,” but added: “Our stores are often provided additional labor hours to augment staffing in support of planned promotional days.”
Rachel Simandl, a shift supervisor at a unionized Starbucks in Chicago where employees walked out on Wednesday and Thursday, said staffing problems were more chronic, leaving workers exhausted and hurting business by increasing wait times for customers and lowering service quality.
“Straight up, what we need is to have more coverage on the floor,” Ms. Simandl said. “Instead of only three people, to have four or five people. It makes such a big difference in the way the day flows.”
The walkout is the latest development in a battle between the company and organized labor. After two initial election victories in the Buffalo area in December 2021, the union campaign quickly spread. About 70 stores filed for union elections in March 2022, but the momentum dissipated. Nearly 20 stores filed for union elections last month.
Of the stores that have had their election results certified by the National Labor Relations Board, 363 voted to unionize, while 71 voted against unionization.
In September, a judge for the labor board ruled that Starbucks had violated federal law by limiting raises and benefit improvements to nonunionized workers. Another administrative judge ruled in March that Starbucks had repeatedly violated federal labor laws by illegally tampering with union organizing and firing employees who sought to unionize.
In June, unionized workers declared a weeklong strike at more than 150 stores, protesting what they said was the company’s ban on Pride Month apparel and treatment of L.G.B.T.Q. workers — an assertion that management denied. Starbucks said the protest had temporarily closed 21 stores.
Starbucks Workers United said the Red Cup Day protests on Thursday had extended to around a dozen nonunionized stores.
One was near Flatwoods, W.Va., where Justin Copenhaver, a shift supervisor, filed a petition to unionize with his co-workers this year. The effort was voted down in March, but the union has accused the company of tampering in the election.
On Thursday, Mr. Copenhaver picketed outside the store with three other employees.
“I want to show the company that we’re the ones bringing in the money, and we can stop the money from coming in,” he said.
Noam Scheiber contributed reporting.