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July 3, 2022

Teenaged organizer of California’s first Starbucks unions eyes Assembly seat

Joe Thompson talks about taking on established candidates

Union organizer Joe Thompson is fresh off the May 11 news that his push to unionize the first Starbucks stores in California—something that seemed unlikely just a few years ago—was successful.

The 19-year-old, who’s running for Assembly District 28, says the drive for workers’ rights in Santa Cruz went back to an informal gathering with coworkers in November, near the untitled piece of art created in 1974 by Kenny Farrell commonly called the Porter Squiggle.

“We all went stargazing during a lunar eclipse,” he said. “We really just talked about, What do we want to do to make sure we have a voice on the job?, and, How do we get that?

May 15 2022 Lunar Eclipse
A May 15 2022 lunar eclipse over the Santa Cruz Mountains. An earlier eclipse a few miles away served as a backdrop for a successful planning session to create California’s first Starbuck unions. (Drew Penner / Los Gatan)

Thompson is vying for the State Assembly seat left vacant by incumbent Mark Stone choosing not to run again. He’s up against known quantities, like former Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin, who spoke to a crowd of hundreds at an abortion-rights protest May 3; Los Gatos Mayor Rob Rennie, a Silicon Valley engineer who’s helped spearhead intergovernmental initiatives focused on the environment; and Liz Lawler, a Republican who sits on Monte Sereno City Council.

Thompson was born in the Sacramento area. He spent three years in Texas working at different Starbucks stores. He also held down a second job at a pizzeria.

He moved to Santa Cruz in September last year to begin his first year at UC Santa Cruz, majoring in Environmental Studies with a policy concentration.

Teachers for Starbucks unionization
ACTIVISM – Thomson is a student activist who wants to get youth excited about politics. (submitted)

For Thompson, the arrival of the coronavirus served to highlight serious problems with how Starbucks treats its workforce.

“We’re not getting paid nearly enough to do that job,” he said, adding the current climate helped spur labor organizing efforts across the country. “The reason why there’s so much union activity is all the Starbucks (locations) across the country are dealing with the same pandemic issues.”

For example, at the Ocean Street location where he works, the company took away a food benefit they used to get, he claims. And they started to crack down on other things, too, like making sure employees weren’t wearing more than one pro-union pin, according to Thompson.

“Starbucks is cutting hours of union leaders across the board,” he said. “Personally, my hours got cut.”

He says that happened as he was in the middle of a dispute filed with the National Labor Relations Board.

As their union organizing ramped up, company reps seemed to be hanging around more often, he asserts.

“They’ve been surveilling us more,” he said. “The upper management has had a lot of presence there.”

Starbucks denies hampering union-organizing and says hours often fluctuate seasonally.

Starbucks organizing
The Ocean Street Starbucks was one of two locations in Santa Cruz that made labor rights history recently with the help of Joe Thompson, who is running to represent the State Assembly district that includes Los Gatos. (submitted)

“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 spokesperson said. “Any claims of anti-union activity are categorically false. We respect our partner’s right to organize and are committed to following the NLRB process.”

While Thompson says he has a good relationship with Pellerin—even looping her in on different events he’s organizing—he argues he’s the stronger candidate.

“I have nothing personally against her,” he said. “But I think we need young people represented.”

In a recent interview with on KSQD’s “Talk of the Bay,” Thompson explained how this translates to boots-on-the-ground in the campaign arena.

“When you have a volunteer staff, they’re more motivated,” he told the host. “We’re able to knock on all doors.”

Thompson describes Rennie as another “decent” candidate, but says the Los Gatos elected official hasn’t gone far enough to make affordable housing available or to improve brownfield sites. Rennie says he hasn’t voted against dispensaries.

“That has not come before the council yet, and it will in June,” he said. “I have not even hinted that I would be against them.”

And while they’re on opposite ends of the political spectrum, in some ways, Thompson says, he shares more in common with Lawler than the others.

“Rob and Gail have both donated over $100,000 to both of their campaigns,” he said. “Even Liz and I agree on campaign finance reform.”

Thompson calls himself a pro-worker worker and notes he’s been endorsed by the California Democratic Renters Council.

Building affordable housing would be at the top of his to-do list if elected, he pledges, adding energizing youth now could help more Democrats get elected during the 2024 elections.

“It’s going to be a hard-fought race,” he said. “I think a lot of young people don’t actually see the value of voting down-ballot.

“These down-ballot races actually impact your life.”

Thompson says the sorts of things that resonate with the younger set—about climate change, about income inequality and the housing crisis—things that can be easy for an older generation to write off as too amorphous, too improbable or too idealistic.

While he’s clearly still the longshot candidate, he’s currently riding the wave of the historic labor breakthrough that will surely be in the minds of some voters dashing into Starbucks for a cup of coffee on their way to the polls.

“If we keep electing the same people over and over, how can we expect change?” he asked. “Our campaign is less about party politics and more about what’s best for people.”

Drew Penner
Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected]