Outside MoMA, union members protested while the museum honored Mellody Hobson for her philanthropy. (all photos Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

On the evening of Tuesday, June 7, as the well-heeled attendees of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) annual “Party in the Garden” gala strode toward the museum’s front doors, they were met by over 20 pro-union protesters gathered outside the entrance.

They were protesting Starbucks’s notorious resistance to union campaigning while Mellody Hobson, the chairwoman of the company, was being honored by MoMA for her “extraordinary philanthropy.” As unionization efforts sweep across Starbucks stores nationwide, the coffee shop chain has repeatedly been accused of “union-busting.”

The action was organized by Workers United, the umbrella union of the growing Starbucks Workers United. There were four Starbucks workers in attendance; the majority of the protesters were Workers United staffers and members of other unions, such as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

The protesters comprised Workers United staff members, members of other unions, and Starbucks employees.

As partygoers filed out of black Sedans pulling up to the curb outside MoMA’s entrance, the protesters seemed to await Hobson’s arrival, chanting, “Mellody, the partners are calling, union busting’s appalling!” and “Mellody, you’re on the wrong side of history!” The group arrived at 6pm, “Party in the Garden” attendees began to roll in at 7pm, and by the time the crowd dispersed at 8pm, Hobson had not walked through the museum’s front doors.

The entrance was heavily guarded by museum security and a police presence emerged as guests began to arrive.

Protesters chanted while gala attendees walked by and handed them leaflets.

Workers at 135 Starbucks stores nationwide have joined Starbucks Workers United, and 286 stores have petitioned to unionize. Recent wins include shops in Chicago, Memphis, and Ann Arbor. Just a day before the MoMA event, a Starbucks in New York City’s Astoria neighborhood voted to unionize. On April 1, the New York City Reserve Roastery in Chelsea Market — one of Starbucks’s swankier outposts — unionized, and other NYC locations await official votes.

The nationwide wave kicked off when three Starbucks stores in Buffalo voted to join Workers United last December. But the road to unionization has been far from smooth, and the company has not been subtle in its anti-union stance. A statement on the coffee chain’s website explicitly defends “voting no” as the best option, and last month, Starbucks Interim CEO Howard Schultz excluded unionized stores from new employee benefits for 8,800 locations, including better sick leave policies and credit card tipping.

Last month, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Buffalo issued a complaint against the company that cited 200 violations of the National Labor Relations Act, including shuttering unionized stores and threatening to fire pro-union employees. In February, Starbucks fired seven pro-union employees in Memphis. The company maintained that the action was unrelated to growing labor movement, but Starbucks Workers United disagreed, and on June 2, Workers United filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging retaliation after the company closed a unionized store in Ithaca. Starbucks again denied the accusations.

Starbucks has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

Mellody Hobson is the chair of Starbucks’s board of directors.

Employees at Starbucks locations across the country have continued to enter into the union. Hours before the MoMA protest, the Memphis store where seven employees were fired officially joined Workers United.

But despite labor wins, retaining staff is still difficult and there is high employee turnover, according to Samy Dominguez, who works at the recently unionized New York City Roastery and attended the protest.

Ley Kido, a Starbucks employee of over nine years who was also present at the MoMA action, pointed to a dissonance between Hobson’s philanthropic activities and low wages and poor health benefits at the company.

“I think that there’s a lot of ways that people in power talk about how they do all this great work for their community, but at the end of the day, you still have folks who are struggling to make ends meet,” Kido told Hyperallergic.

Some Starbucks workers saw a connection between their unionization efforts and those of MoMA employees, who secured higher wages in 2018 after months of bargaining.

“The workers here at MoMA don’t receive the pay or benefits that they deserve based on how much money the museum as an institution brings in,” CJ Toothman, an employee of the Brooklyn Reserve store in Williamsburg, told Hyperallergic. “It’s a related struggle for us.”

“It’s sad because they’re organized, they have a union, and the museum’s going and promoting someone who’s actively promoting anti-union action,” Brandi Alduk told Hyperallergic, referring to MoMA’s decision to honor Hobson and her husband, film director George Lucas. Alduk has worked at Starbucks for three years and helped rally her Astoria co-workers to join the union.

Protesters chanted, “We make Starbucks strong and well, time to bargain for our health.”

In recent years, museums have faced mounting scrutiny over the makeup of their boards and the source of donations. Last month, the Guggenheim Museum and London’s National Gallery followed the Metropolitan Museum of Art in removing the name of the Sackler family, founders of the pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma known now to be partly responsible for fueling the opioid epidemic.

In 2019, artists and scholars penned an open letter urging Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, an investor in two of America’s largest prison companies, to resign from MoMA’s board. This was followed by calls to oust board member Leon Black over his ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein and a series of protests, teach-ins, and actions led by artists and activists in 2021 under the banner of “Strike MoMA.”

“The majority of people are coming from a place of wealth and they just don’t understand what it’s like to be working class,” Alduk told Hyperallergic. “Hopefully them seeing us and having to look us in the eye at least gets some people thinking.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.