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A trans 24-year-old finds his voice, ignites a union effort at his Starbucks

UPDATED: Wed., June 22, 2022

Ian Miller, 24, returns to work after a vote passes to unionize the Starbucks location where he works at in Olney, Md.  (Washington Post )
Ian Miller, 24, returns to work after a vote passes to unionize the Starbucks location where he works at in Olney, Md. (Washington Post )
By Rebecca Tan Washington Post

Ian Miller walks quickly when he is irritated.

He picked up his stride one recent morning as he approached the polling location where employees at a Starbucks in Olney, Md., were going to decide whether to unionize.

The store’s manager, district manager and regional manager were standing in front of a makeshift voting booth set up in the parking lot.

They were talking to a tall man in a collared shirt – a lawyer representing the $13 billion company, Miller later learned – as baristas trickled into the store, where they each earned slightly more than the minimum wage.

In recent weeks, managers had spoken to all 18 union-eligible workers at this Starbucks.

They’d talked about the company’s pay (more generous than other retail stores) and benefits (set to increase in the coming months).

They’d made everyone watch a video where Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ founder, called the company a “family” under siege by “outside forces.”

And they’d explained, at length, what workers stood to lose by joining the union effort being led at Starbucks stores across the nation – primarily by young, female and queer employees.

These were employees who had been shaped by the push-and-pull over LGBTQ rights in the past decade – people who entered high school as gay Americans won the right to marry and graduated from college as conservative lawmakers pushed “Don’t Say Gay” bills and legislation barring trans youth from playing school sports.

These were employees who were told, amid a global pandemic, that they were “essential.”

These were employees who could revive a long-declining labor movement in the United States, observers said – employees like Miller, the irritated 5-foot-3, 24-year-old transgender man barreling toward his managers that very moment.

“Hi,” Miller said curtly as he came to a stop, his dyed red hair peeking out from underneath a beanie.

He nodded at his supervisors, then looked at his phone to check the remaining time: three minutes until the first voting session was set to begin.

“Why are Kevin and Jay-Ar hovering over there?” Miller asked, zipping into the store.

Steven Noble, 18, shrugged behind the counter.

“They’ve been out there a while.”

“Well, they’re not supposed to be.”

Just a few weeks ago, workers at a Starbucks in nearby Northern Virginia had voted narrowly against forming a union, giving a rare blow to the labor effort that had started at a Starbucks store in Buffalo, N.Y., last December and spread to hundreds of stores since.

Miller heard that leaders of the coffee chain’s Mid-Atlantic region had intensified their pressure on workers at the Northern Virginia store in the days – and hours – before they voted. Now, they were focused here, on store #9835.

He had to figure out what to do.

But first: clock in.

Staffing at this store hadn’t been the same since the pandemic hit – baristas alternately found themselves alone behind the counter with a long line of customers and twiddling their thumbs with co-workers when business was slow.

Workers wanted a bigger say in how baristas were recruited, retained and scheduled. And with inflation, they wanted to be paid more.

Ever since he and his co–workers had gone public with their petition to unionize, Miller had been feeling like he was in free fall – like he’d stepped off a cliff on the belief that gravity would reverse.

He knew he had a lot to lose, including his financial stability, his health care and his access to education. He’d felt this way before.

Miller texted as he walked in circles.

He shot off a final message to a labor organizer, then slipped on a green apron decked out with various pins: one with “ASU,” Arizona State University, where Starbucks pays for him to go to school part–time; one with his pronouns “he/him”; and one with the Starbucks siren – that two–tailed mermaid that has become the company’s most recognizable global symbol – smoking a joint.

As the first of his co-workers headed out to vote, Miller took his post behind the cash register.

“I can help whoever’s next.”

Miller was nervous about the vote but he hadn’t, at any point in the organizing process, been afraid.

He was confident Starbucks was not going to fire him and, maybe more importantly, he was confident he would be fine even if they did. Miller kept this belief close: Life can be remade as readily as it can be upturned.

He’d done it all before.

Miller was born in Ennis, Texas, the second child to a Southern Baptist and a Catholic.

His family orientated their lives around conservative Christian rituals as they moved around the South and the Midwest, settling eventually in Wilson, N.C.

This was the only environment Miller knew growing up, but even as a child, he said later, so much of it did not suit him.

The frilly dresses and pigtails. The stringent rules dividing sin and virtue. The judgment passed in hushed whispers at church.

Miller did not understand why it seemed like he was the only one who had never actually heard the voice of God.

He wondered if there was something wrong with him and if maybe that was why he had no friends.

He drew close to his mother, a pious and protective woman.

By middle school, Miller stopped going to Sunday service.

By high school, he was spending most of his free time in front of a computer, making art or messaging with people he met online. It was on YouTube that he first came across the word “trans.”

Miller grew even more withdrawn as puberty transformed his body. Looking at a mirror or hearing people call him “young ma’am” sometimes made him sick.

Then, in 2016, he enrolled at North Carolina State University.

At orientation, he met a student who said he was genderqueer – and out.

Even though 1 in 6 members of Miller’s generation – Generation Z – identifies as LGBTQ, Miller had never met anyone in person who was openly queer.

By the time freshman year was up, Miller had started to transition.

He “masked” when he had to go home, taking off the binders that kept his chest flat and letting down his dark, curly hair.

But the more he embraced his gender identity at school, the more difficult it was to playact a different version of himself at home.

He wanted to start hormone treatment but knew he would not be able to hide that from his parents, who had made clear long ago that they would cut him off if he ever came out as queer.

In his sophomore year, Miller started skipping classes. He struggled to get out of bed and to eat, slipping into a state that afflicts a vast majority of trans youth and kills them at a higher rate than their cisgender peers.

“I didn’t see a future for myself,” Miller remembered of that period. “All I wanted to do was disappear.”

“But something kicked in. I don’t know what to call it,” he continued. “An urge to survive.”

Miller started seeing a therapist. Then in September 2018, a little before his 21st birthday, he drafted a letter to his parents.

He told them what it had been like for him growing up – how, for years, he had wanted to “tear off his chest.”

He told them he had thought for a long time about his gender identity and that regardless of whether they approved, he was transitioning.

He had chosen a new name for himself, he wrote: “Ian James.” It became his legal identity in December 2019.

His father read the letter, then his mother. She responded over email.

“I cannot breathe, I cannot eat, I cannot function.”

Miller did not reply. Fifty minutes later, she emailed again.

“You are a girl and you always will be.”

“I keep thinking I will awake from this nightmare … I don’t know if I can go on living like this – with you just gone. There is now a black cloud over everything. I’ve never been so hurt.”

Miller eventually replied, exchanging dozens of emails, text messages and calls with his parents.

But his mother, who Miller described as a staunchly conservative Trump supporter, never came around. (Miller’s parents declined to speak to The Washington Post.)

So with a year left until graduation, Miller dropped out of college and moved to Maryland to be with his partner, also a trans man.

He did not have a car or much in the way of savings. He had never had a full–time job, but he knew he needed one.

Starbucks, he had read online, offered trans health benefits for employees. A store not far from him – an hour by foot – had a vacancy.

Miller started walking.

The barista peered at the front window as he wiped down a metal pitcher. Customers had been streaming in all day, asking for the “union yes” coffee.

Now, a small crowd of them had gathered outside the store. Miller wanted to introduce himself but he did not have time – mobile orders were rolling in.

David Mott, 71, was huddled outside, along with a Maryland state delegate, a Montgomery County council member and a handful of activists from the Democratic Socialists of America.

Mott, a retired organizer with the Service Employees International Union, lived in Olney and had come to volunteer as an election observer.

“This is very interesting. It’s so very, very different,” Mott said, bouncing as he held onto a sweating cup of cold–brew.

Back in his day, the labor movement was often represented by White male industrial workers, even though women and people of color made significant contributions.

The recent revival of labor action, Mott said, was not like that.

The unionization effort at the Starbucks in Buffalo had been visibly led by two young women.

In New York City, Black men were credited with organizing a group of warehouse workers into Amazon’s first union.

And in Maryland, the first Starbucks to organize had been in Baltimore, where a majority–LGBTQ workforce voted unanimously to unionize.

“This new generation is going to be the one to bring unions back,” said Stephanie Hernandez, a Workers United organizer who has been supporting union efforts in Maryland.

Virtually all the Starbucks employees who have reached out to her have been LGBTQ, women or people of color, she said, with some as young as 18.

Many of them were drawn to Starbucks because of the liberal ideals that the Seattle-based company espoused. And many of them told Hernandez the same story: Company values were no replacement for tangible benefits; they wanted – they needed – more.

At the Olney store, several employees left in the early months of the pandemic, joining the “Great Resignation.”

The baristas who remained took on more during their shifts, sometimes giving up breaks and days off to cover staffing gaps.

In 2021, as inflation picked up, their wages stayed largely stagnant. Will Gibian, a 35–year–old shift supervisor and one of the store’s most senior employees, started doing Instacart deliveries on his off–hours to afford rent.

Workers tried raising their concerns with management. Little changed.

For Miller, the pandemic brought on other transformations.

He grew closer to his partner’s family in Maryland.

He enrolled in college for a degree in social psychology and started making art again, agitated by the inequities that were exposed by the coronavirus and by the demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd.

As GOP lawmakers implemented legislation eroding protections for transgender and gay youth, Miller moderated online forums for queer people from conservative, religious families.

In April 2021, Miller went for gender affirming top surgery at Johns Hopkins University.

Pandemic restrictions meant no visitors – so when Miller woke up from the anesthetic, he was alone. Underneath his bandages, he could feel that his chest was flat. He wept with joy.

There is a photo that his partner took of him post–op that Miller likes to show people.

He is looking at a mirror, his eyes cast down toward the two horizontal scars on his chest. He is beaming. “Look at this,” he tells people, “and tell me that operation wasn’t lifesaving.”

Transitioning made him want to live again, Miller said.

It made him want more out of life.

In early February, he attended a meeting at the store where his district manager, Jay–Ar Boac, again failed to address employee concerns. (A Starbucks corporate spokesperson declined to make Boac available for comment.)

Frustrated, Miller texted a group chat he had with the store’s three other shift supervisors. He made his message plain.

“Consider: union.”

The counting started at 6 p.m. An election official took voting slips out of the box one by one. Two yesses, then a no.

Lit by the setting sun, Miller watched the vote count with Hernandez and a handful of other employees.

Everyone at the store Miller had spoken to in recent weeks seemed to agree that workers should get a bigger say in deciding how labor was distributed and how wages were set.

But he worried. Maybe his co-workers had changed their minds; Schulz, the Starbucks executive, had recently promised more benefits to non-unionized employees.

Two more nos.

It had been a hectic day. New customers had come to check out the Starbucks they heard might be unionizing; regular customers had wanted to chat about what was going on.

A local TV crew had swung by when Miller was one of only three people on shift – too few to stop and talk. Even before he’d gotten to the vote count, Miller had been exhausted.

The election official flipped over the box to show there were no more ballots. Then came the final count: 9 yesses, 4 nos. Store #9835 had voted to unionize.

Hernandez whooped.

Mott, the retired SEIU organizer, grinned at the Starbucks lawyers as he put his arms in the air in victory.

In the coming days, store managers would tack up a message asking workers to “move away from the ‘us versus them’ feeling that has changed our work environment.” But for now, they stood quietly.

Miller clapped and laughed under his mask, his face red from joy.

“Thank you,” he said quietly to the people congratulating him.

Miller still had two hours left in his shift so as others were still high-fiving, he started walking back to the store.

He went slowly this time, placing his hand on his chest as he breathed in and out.

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