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A 24-year-old trans man's journey of finding himself and helping unionize at his Starbucks

Starbucks employees in Olney, Maryland voted 9 to 4 to unionize their Starbucks store earlier this year.

A 24-year-old trans man's journey of finding himself and helping unionize at his Starbucks
IMAGE CREDIT: A customer enters a Starbucks Coffee store on June 10, 2020, in San Rafael, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Warning: This story mentions transphobia that readers may find disturbing.

In the past, labor movements in the U.S. were primarily led by white men. Today, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and women are at the forefront of the labor movement across the country. “This new generation is going to be the one to bring unions back,” said Stephanie Hernandez, a Workers United organizer. One prominent voice who led the unionization effort at a Starbucks in Olney, Maryland, is a 24-year-old trans man named Ian Miller, reported The Washington Post. The Starbucks employees in Olney voted 9 to 4 in favor of unionizing, making them the third to do so in the state. Miller played an instrumental part in the win but was concerned about the result until it was official.


Starbucks had ramped up its efforts to woo workers and even promised better benefits to non-unionized workers. Managers spoke to 18 union-eligible workers and played them a video of Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ founder stating the “family” was being targeted by “outside forces.” They explained what workers stood to lose by supporting unionization led by young, women and queer employees. It was a huge win for the employees, especially after many of them risked their lives and worked overtime to keep the chain running during the pandemic. Employees felt they deserved better pay and a bigger say in how baristas were recruited, retained, and scheduled. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: People hold signs while protesting in front of Starbucks on April 14, 2022 in New York City. Activists gathered to protest Starbucks' CEO Howard Schultz anti-unionization efforts and demand the reinstatement of workers fired for trying to unionize. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)


It was also a huge personal high for Miller, who stood to lose a lot including his financial stability, health care and more. Miller was born into a conservative Christian family. Growing up Miller wondered if something was wrong with him as he felt like the only person who didn't hear the voice of God. It was on YouTube that he first came across the word "trans." Miller felt isolated and withdrew into a shell as his body underwent puberty. He hated looking into a mirror. 



He enrolled at North Carolina State University in 2016 and that was the first time he met a person who was openly queer. It was a pivotal moment in his life. He had started to transition in school but took his chest binders off at home. "Masking" himself at home was starting to take a heavy toll on him but his parents had made it clear that they would cut him off if he ever came out as queer. By the time he was in his sophomore year, he was struggling and like most trans youths, began to feel hopeless. “All I wanted to do was disappear,” he recalled before adding that he felt an urge to survive. He started seeing a therapist and shortly before his 21st birthday, he wrote a letter to his parents telling them that after giving considerable thought to his gender identity, he had made up his mind to transition despite their disapproval.


His parents didn't approve and his mother replied, "There is now a black cloud over everything. I’ve never been so hurt.” He replied to them and tried to explain but his parents never accepted him. Miller dropped out of college and moved to Maryland to be with his partner, also a trans man. He took up a job at Starbucks because they offered trans health benefits for employees. He would soon witness several employees quitting their jobs on account of poor pay and work hours. Those who stayed on had to cover more shifts and even had to waive their days off to keep the establishment running. As inflation hit, their wages remained stagnant seeing a drop in purchasing power. Employees worked multiple jobs to make ends meet.


Miller went for gender-affirming top surgery at Johns Hopkins University in April 2021. He was alone after the procedure because he was allowed no visitors during the pandemic. Miller broke into happy tears as he woke up from the anesthetic. He says the operation has been life-saving. Earlier that year, a district manager at Starbucks didn't address employee concerns and he decided to take things up with his colleagues. His message was simple: “Consider: union.” Earlier this year, their store #9835 had voted to unionize with 9 yesses to 4 nos.

If you're a trans person and are being subjected to abuse, or need any help, please reach out to TRANS LIFELINE at 877-330-6366.

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