Picket Vibes: My Participation in the Longest Strike in Starbucks History


Jesse Lowe, Scarlet Staff

Between July 18 and September 19, at all hours of day and night, at least two people sat outside of the Starbucks location at 874 Commonwealth Avenue, on the border of Brookline and Boston. This was a round-the-clock strike that demanded an end to union-busting practices and unsafe working conditions at Starbucks.

Soon after the location unionized in June, Starbucks hired a new temporary manager named Tomi Chorlian. During the month she spent working, she reduced hours, threatened to fire people who didn’t have enough availability and understaffed the store. According to a detailed letter from the employees to their district manager, she also violated Starbucks policy by contaminating store equipment with allergens, attempting to deny an employee bereavement leave, and unfairly scrutinizing the clothing of Black and transgender employees.

Starbucks partners viewed Chorlian’s presence in the store as punishment for unionizing and demanded her removal. On July 18, instead of coming in to work, they set up a poster-making event on the store’s patio and launched an indefinite strike. While the employees refused to work and blocked deliveries from entering the store, Starbucks was unable to open and lost all of the profits that they would normally gain from operating on Boston University’s campus during move-in season. In order to reopen and return to making money, Starbucks would have to negotiate and reach an agreement with the workers.

Over the course of the two months that the partners and their allies spent on strike, they raised money to cover lost wages, asked allies to call the district manager in support, and built a support network of nearly two hundred people. 


The Day Shift

I took my first shift on the picket line on the sunny Saturday afternoon of August 27. The picketers had set up folding chairs and a shade tent in the entrance way to the store. Over the course of the two hours that I spent sitting there, I met people who ranged from ages 16 to 70. They were students, baristas, professional farmers, park foragers, medical lab technicians, and music teachers. We drank fruit punch Capri Suns and ate way too many Insomnia cookies. Someone put together a community playlist called Picket Vibes, with nearly three hours of songs.

I brought books and a sewing project. Beside me, one person knitted, and another worked on a resume for a new job. Whenever I got tired of sitting still and needed to stretch my legs, I took a sharpie up to the posters that read “WANTED at the bargaining table: Howard Schultz!”

Strangers who were afraid to be seen on the picket line handed us cash or chocolate and told us, good luck. Every few days, someone would print out new flyers with information on the reasons for the strike, how to donate to the strike fund, and how to sign up for a shift. We kept running out.

I returned to the picket line as often as I could, and many others did as well. The record for the longest time any one person spent on the picket line is 16 consecutive hours. People affectionately told each other in the groupchat to go home and sleep. We lent each other jackets when it got cold. Every time I left the line, I left with deep aches in my back and hips from sitting in cheap folding chairs. I left exhausted from trying to follow so many chaotic conversations. I left with a full stomach and a feeling of hope.

From watching new and old members of the community meet each other on the picket line, I learned a lot about recruitment. If you want to recruit someone into your movement, don’t tell them to read theory or tell them that their efforts thus far haven’t been enough. Invite them to sit next to you, in the comfiest folding chair. Ask them to bring their favorite snack next time, enough to share. Ask if they want to be added to the memechat. Let them pick the next song. Hand them a piece of chalk and tell them to create something beautiful on the sidewalk.

In the grand scheme of international political change, these local networks of people who know each other by name seem insignificant. They’re tiny. But in our efforts to draw new people into the labor movement, and to re-energize people who are losing steam, little communities like these are very, very important.


The Megapicket

The rhythm of sitting in small groups was broken up by visits from politicians, including Bernie Sanders, Michelle Wu, and Ayanna Pressley. The organizers of the strike also chose several days to call for a “megapicket,” where larger numbers of picketers marched on the sidewalk and called the district manager, Phil Mann, in support of the strike. On the evening of Sept. 6, a Yiddish band set up under the tent and played music for nearly two dozen picketers, who danced and sang along on the sidewalk. 

There was a less joyful, more frantic megapicket in the morning of Sept. 15, when Starbucks corporate ordered picketers to move out of the entryway to the store, citing safety concerns and trespassing law. Supporters converged to clean up the site, return the tent and table to their original owners, and reaffirm that even if we had to be on the sidewalk with even less shelter, even if there was only space for four people to sit at once, the strike would continue.


The Night Shift

I took the night shift from 11:45 p.m. on Sept. 17 until 5:45 a.m. on Sept. 18. We needed picketers throughout the night because the delivery workers, who belonged to the Teamsters union, refused to deliver supplies and enable the store to open with scabs as long as someone was there. 

Multiple groups of hungry partiers came to us when they discovered that the Taco Bell was closed, and we recommended they walk to Insomnia Cookies for food. The moon rose over the corner of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts building, and I watched it cross Commonwealth Ave over the course of six hours of darkness. If I squinted, I could see past the light pollution to the stars.

It was too dark to sew or read a book, so my shift partner and I chatted about our classes and then settled into doing homework on Boston University’s wifi in silence. It got harder to keep our hands on the keyboards as the temperature dropped and the chill settled into our bodies. I was wrapped in two hoodies and a blanket, and still, I had a snack every hour or so to keep myself warm. 

The house sparrows, who picketers had fed with birdseed for weeks, abandoned the line at night. A window in one of the buildings across the street squeaked, and without the sound of daytime traffic to drown it out, it grated on me. The line felt a little lonely. I wondered about winter, and about how long we would be able to keep this up.

That night no one harassed me and my shift partner, but in the past we had encountered people yelling at us to get a different job, or that picketers just don’t want to work, or even pretending to be Howard Schultz’s son and claiming to be there to negotiate with us. When that happened, we de-escalated, disengaged, and laughed them off later. 

There was a precious piece of cardboard on the line at all times with the names, pronouns, and phone numbers of emergency contacts. Whenever someone felt unsafe and called for help, the line was flooded with people. The group chat never slept.

At 5:13 a.m., I felt the first train pass under us. The MBTA, and the city, were beginning to wake up. At 5:30, we shared our donated Cliff bars and bottled water with one of our unhoused neighbors. At 6, a BU student came to relieve me. I fell asleep on both the green line and the red line on the way home.


The End

The next day, when I returned for a sunrise shift, three private security officers hired by Starbucks were sitting on a bench chatting with my fellow picketers about retirement and low-sodium diets. They were outwardly friendly, but their presence was a threat. We could tell that something was about to happen. We kept four people, rather than two, on the line that morning. 

The squeaking grew less frequent, and stopped. The house sparrows returned. The sun rose. The shift changed. We wrote in sidewalk chalk: Day 63!

It was the morning of Sept. 20, day 64 of the strike, when I was back in Worcester, that I opened the picket line group chat to a flood of confetti emojis. Kylah Clay, a lead organizer, had announced that the strike had ended in victory. District manager Phil Mann had confirmed that he was going to hire a replacement for Tomi Chorlian. Starbucks continued to claim that because there had been no formal negotiations, they had conceded nothing, and the end of the strike could not be considered a union victory. The workers know that it was.

Those who were scheduled to be on the picket line went to the Boston University Graduate Worker’s Union rally instead, to return the support that Boston University students had given the Starbucks union. Members of the group chat began joking about becoming pirates together on the Charles River. 

While I see the limitations of the 874 Commonwealth Ave strike, and I would love to see larger strikes win larger victories, I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the labor movement. I’m more connected to my neighbors and my community because of it. This powerful network will stay in touch, and show up to support any future strikes in the Boston area. We’ll celebrate every little bit of progress that we make, and we’ll stay joyful.