For years, big chains decorating their stores for Pride month felt like a given. As a queer person, I came to expect that every June, trips to Burger King or Dunkin’ might be just a little gayer. But this year, Pride decorations became a flashpoint for Starbucks employees, who allege the company broke from prior practices and banned Pride decorations from its stores.
Workers at stores across the country have accused Starbucks managers of taking down flags and streamers, or otherwise preventing employees from decorating their stores in support of LGBTQ rights. Although the company has denied these claims, the allegations escalated: The Starbucks Workers United (SWU) union called a nationwide strike, with workers at more than 150 stores planning to walk off the job through the end of June.
An end to Pride demonstrations in Starbucks stores would mirror similar moves by companies such as Target and Bud Light, which have distanced themselves from the queer community this year. Boycotts and threats of violence from bigoted customers against LGBTQ-themed promotions have pushed companies previously happy to engage in rainbow capitalism—co-opting queer imagery to market and sell products—to downplay visible celebrations of queer and trans people. Meanwhile, LGBTQ Americans face more and more challenges to their health care and their very right to exist in public.
So how did a few allegations of flags coming down in coffee shops escalate to a national strike? What will the coffee giant do about the allegations? And maybe most compelling of all, why do the rights of baristas at a chain of cafés matter so much to queer Americans and customers? Read on for these answers and more.
What are the anti-Pride allegations?
In early June, individual stores across the country began accusing the company of removing Pride flags and other decor celebrating Pride month. The company has denied the allegations, but in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Maryland, and other locations, worker testimonies, posts on social media, and alleged company communications all supported the claims that Starbucks leadership was removing rainbow flags and other decor.
At the State Street store in Madison, Wisconsin, a shift supervisor and SWU member claims he watched a district manager take down Pride decorations on June 11. Allegedly, the manager said that they were “not welcoming to everyone.” The supervisor, Matthew Cartwright, says store management had previously authorized those decorations. Cartwright told Bon Appétit that the decorations had been up for nearly a month. On its Instagram page, the store’s union posted a video of the decorations being removed by an unnamed woman it claims was district manager at the time. Starbucks did not respond to questions about the video, authorization of decorations, and whether the actions of the alleged manager reflected the company’s nationwide policy.
Similar claims have popped up across the country. The union shared a statement on Twitter that, along with Cartwright, featured testimonies from employees in Georgia, Ohio, and Virginia, saying the company had required Pride decor be removed from their stores. At a store in Maryland, employees also claim managers said customers could feel excluded by the decor. Other union employees in Massachusetts say they were told they could not decorate because there were not enough hours in the workday to do so, while some in Georgia and Oklahoma say their managers said decorating was a “safety concern” amid the current surge in anti-LGBTQ violence and hate. Starbucks did not respond to Bon Appétit when asked to comment on these specific allegations.
How are Starbucks workers responding?
Well, they’re striking. In New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and elsewhere, SWU members are walking out from a planned 150 stores or more. The strike began at the Seattle roastery, Starbucks’ flagship location, on June 23, but has snowballed to include stores in North Texas, Colorado Springs, and more that have authorized the work stoppages. Last week, Bon Appétit reported that the company would avoid shutdowns by staffing striking locations with employees from nearby stores throughout the protests.