TikTok transformed overnight on August 30, 2022. Suddenly, decorative gourds, infinity scarves, and tributes to the Sanderson sisters were everywhere. The Pumpkin Spice Latte had returned to Starbucks and autumn had (at least on social media) officially begun.

In the nineteen years since its debut, the “PSL” has become a cultural lodestone, inspiring memes, stand up comedy routines, and myriad copycats. Pumpkin spice can be found in candles, cookies, and coffee shops all across the United States. It is, perhaps, no surprise that in those nineteen years, Starbucks’ yearly profits have also grown from $4 billion in 2003 to $26 billion in 2022. 

Coffee With a Conscience? Starbucks Employees Form a Union

Along with that growth has come a reputation for progressive values. Starbucks is known for providing generous benefits to both retail and non-retail employees, like paid time off, health care insurance, and tuition assistance. Alongside its partner benefits, the corporation emphasizes their commitment to a positive social impact, from environmental sustainability to charitable donations and workplace equity. For many, Starbucks has become the golden standard for capitalism with a conscience: a company that improves the standard of living for its employees, works for the global common good, and still turns record profits each year.

Yet since August 2021, the nation’s attention has been captured by the ongoing work of Starbucks Workers United, a labor union of Starbucks employees formed from approximately 220 of the corporation’s stores. The union claims that Starbucks has not lived up to its sterling reputation. Formed in the height of the pandemic when surges in mobile orders were reported to lead to burnout among staff, Starbucks Workers United hopes to ensure workers’ rights around matters like "health and safety conditions . . . seniority rights, leaves of absence rights, benefits, wages,” and more.

Starbucks Union Renews Interest in Workers’ Rights

Starbucks itself has been notably aggressive in its opposition to union activity in its corporate stores. In the past two years, the company has implemented pay raises and added benefits for its retail partners, which have been specifically denied to union stores because the executives claim a need to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with each individual store.

Furthermore, Starbucks was sued by the National Labor Relations Board for allegedly violating federal law by firing seven employees in Memphis after they spoke to media outlets about their work organizing a local chapter of Starbucks Workers United. The corporation filed a countersuit alleging misconduct by the NLRB and Starbucks Workers United in the union voting process.

The Starbucks unionization battle has reignited an interest in labor rights across the country as Americans grapple with the inequalities made evident by the lingering pandemic. With corporations turning record profits, inflation driving up prices, and minimum wage remaining stagnant, there is a collective examination of what constitutes an ethical workplace and how the average person can make an impact for the common good.

Or, to put it in simpler terms, is buying a Pumpkin Spice Latte right or wrong? And who are we supporting when we do?

What the Church Says About Workers’ Rights

When it comes to ethical questions around labor, Catholic Social Teaching provides key insights. Throughout the last century, Church teaching has consistently upheld the right of workers to organize in unions, the right of employers to private property, the duty of the government to ensure just wages and safe workplaces, and the duty of all economic parties to ensure the common good of all people within their economic activity.

At every turn, the Church’s teaching has focused on two key ideas: the dignity of every human person and the duty to promote the common good. As Pope Benedict XVI writes, “The Church's social doctrine has always maintained that justice must be applied to every phase of economic activity, because this is always concerned with [humans] and [their] needs.In a Catholic worldview, the role of any person or organization – whether employer, union, or government – is to promote the dignity of the human person and to ensure the common good for all of society.

How Can Consumers Support People and the Common Good?

So how can we apply these principles to the situation playing out between Starbucks and its workers? What can we as consumers do to uphold both the dignity of the human person and the common good?

The answers to these questions require reflection. Read reliable news sources and learn about both the union’s position and the company’s. Pray with the Bible to better understand what God wants for His people. Examine your spending habits and ask yourself whether they reflect your values. Seek input from people whose values you admire.

There is no quick and easy answer to the question of whether to indulge in Pumpkin Spice Lattes or to go without. As consumers, our influence may be limited compared to those who control production or decide how to allot company funds. But our decisions as consumers can influence how companies operate. Each of us must use the wisdom available to us to make the best decisions we can in a world where we can never know everything we wish we could.

Regardless, let’s do our best to support workers. Let’s do our best to purchase from companies that have a positive impact on the common good. Let’s do our best to create a culture where we don’t have to choose between the products we love, the people who make them, and the good of all. Let’s build a world where love and truth will meet and justice and pumpkin spice will kiss.

Shannon Wimp Schmidt

Shannon Wimp Schmidt is a pastoral minister, co-host of Plaid Skirts and Basic Black Podcast, and author of the upcoming book Fat Luther, Slim Pickin’s (Ave Maria Press, February 2022). She lives near Indianapolis with her husband, Eric, and their four children. Follow her on Instagram @teamquarterblack and Twitter @teamquarterblk.

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