Some new unions are facing an unforeseen hurdle as they try to bargain first contracts with big-name employers: getting sued for the names they’ve chosen.
Starbucks is the latest company to file an intellectual property lawsuit against its employees’ union. The coffee chain claims that the group, Workers United, is “diluting” the Starbucks brand and violating trademarks with the name and logo of its campaign, Starbucks Workers United.
Both Medieval Times and Trader Joe’s have made similar trademark claims against their respective workers’ unions, Medieval Times Performers United and Trader Joe’s United. In all three cases, workers say no reasonable person would confuse the unions with the companies, especially when the unions are publicly accusing the companies of illegal union-busting.
In the case of Starbucks, the company sent a letter to Workers United last week after the union campaign’s account on X, formerly known as Twitter, posted a message expressing “solidarity with Palestine” following the Hamas terror attack on Israel. Starbucks warned the union to stop using the Starbucks name in its campaign name and imagery. The union refused.
On Wednesday, the two parties filed dueling lawsuits in federal court. The union, which has organized more than 350 stores since 2021, requested a court order assuring that it can continue using the name Starbucks Workers United. Starbucks asked a judge to force the union to drop the Starbucks name “and other identifying symbols.”
“The union said it has an obvious reason for using the name Starbucks Workers United: 'to identify the employees who make up the union.'”
The company claimed it’s been inundated with angry calls and emails from customers who conflated the union campaign’s Palestinian solidarity tweet with the company itself. It also flagged a post on X from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) calling for a boycott of Starbucks and linking to an article in The Washington Free Beacon, which was first to report on the dust-up.
The union said in its court filing that it has an obvious reason for using the name Starbucks Workers United: “to identify the employees who make up the union.” Furthermore, the union said it doesn’t want the public to confuse it with the company.
“Particularly given Starbucks’ egregious anti-union campaign,” the union asserted, “Workers United does not want workers to fear that the Union is somehow controlled or sponsored by the company.”
The union also alleges that Starbucks defamed it through “false public statements indicating that Workers United supports terrorism and violence.”
The union said the “solidarity with Palestine” tweet was not authorized by union leaders and was deleted after about half an hour.
Last year, Medieval Times filed a lawsuit accusing its workers’ union, the American Guild of Variety Artists, of creating “consumer confusion” through the name of its campaign, Medieval Times Performers United, and its logo, which features medieval imagery like swords and castles.
The AGVA, which has unionized two of Medieval Times’ nine U.S. castles since last year, called the company’s lawsuit “a grotesque attempt to retaliate against workers for exercising their legally protected right to form a union.”
The dinner-theater chain did not fare well in its legal effort. A judge tossed its trademark infringement claim in September, saying there was “no plausible likelihood of confusion.”
“In sum, neither a side-by-side comparison nor the overall impression is confusingly similar” between the two logos, wrote the judge, William Martini of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.
In his decision, Martini alluded to case law protecting unions that use an employer’s name within their own for identification purposes.
The union has filed an unfair labor practice charge against Medieval Times, saying the intellectual property lawsuit was meant to silence and intimidate workers.
In July, Trader Joe’s lodged its own trademark claim against Trader Joe’s United, a new labor group that has won union elections at four stores since last year.
The company claimed the union’s sale of merchandise in its online store could cause “significant reputational harm” to the grocer. The items for sale include a reusable shopping bag that says “Trader Joe’s United” and shows the union logo, a raised fist clenching a box cutter.
The union called the company’s claims “frivolous” and accused it of trying to “weaponize” trademark law against its own workers. The lawsuit has not yet been resolved.
In a letter to the company, the union’s lawyers called the Trader Joe’s lawsuit “just another in your continuing attack against labor.”