Starbucks Broke Law By Firing And Threatening Pro-Union Workers, Labor Board Alleges

An official with the National Labor Relations Board filed a wide-ranging complaint accusing the coffee chain of violating workers’ rights.
A Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York, that is part of a complaint filed Friday by National Labor Relations Board officials.
A Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York, that is part of a complaint filed Friday by National Labor Relations Board officials.
ELEONORE SENS via Getty Images

Starbucks committed a host of labor law violations by terminating six pro-union workers, disciplining and surveilling others, closing stores and changing work policies in the course of its battle with an organizing campaign, according to a complaint filed by labor officials on Friday.

A regional director for the National Labor Relations Board brought the charges against the Seattle-based coffee chain, having found merit in allegations made by the union Workers United. The union has successfully organized more than 50 Starbucks stores since last year despite an aggressive counter-campaign by the company.

The complaint filed Friday was unusually wide-ranging, alleging a pattern of intimidation and retaliation at several stores in New York. It also implicated CEO Howard Schultz, alleging he violated the law last November by promising “an increase in benefits” if they didn’t unionize.

The regional director, Linda Leslie, asked that either Schultz or executive Rossann Williams read a notice to workers explaining what their rights are, or be present with board agents who read read such a notice. Linda said a video should be recorded so that it could be distributed to all stores.

The complaint says Starbucks shuttered stores with the intent to intimidate workers seeking a union, punished workers who supported the organizing effort, deployed managers to surveil union sympathizers and granted benefits to try to turn workers against the union.

Board officials file such a complaint after they’ve investigated a union’s claims and found them to be credible.

The union campaign, known as Starbucks Workers United, said the complaint “fully unmasks Starbucks’ facade as a ‘progressive company.’”

“Starbucks has been saying that no union-busting ever occurred in Buffalo. Today, the NLRB sets the record straight,” the campaign said in a statement Friday. “The complaint confirms the extent and depravity of Starbucks’ conduct in Western New York for the better part of a year. Starbucks will be held accountable for the union-busting minefield they forced workers to walk through in fighting for their right to organize.”

A Starbucks spokesperson said in an email that the company does not believe the allegations have merit, calling the complaint “the beginning of a litigation process that permits both sides to be heard.”

“We believe the allegations contained in the complaint are false, and we look forward to presenting our evidence when the allegations are adjudicated,” the spokesperson said.

Many of the alleged actions occurred in Starbucks stores in the Buffalo area, where the organizing campaign began in 2021. The effort has since spread throughout the country, with more than 200 stores petitioning for union elections.

In the complaint, Leslie said Starbucks should have to provide managers with training on workers rights, and provide the union with “equal time” to make its case to workers if the company holds anti-union meetings. She also said the fired workers should be offered reinstatement and backpay.

Without a settlement between the board and Starbucks, the case could go to trial, with witnesses from both sides providing testimony.

The charges are part of a broader legal fight between Starbucks and Workers United, with the campaign accusing the company of retaliating against organizers. The union has urged board officials to pursue cases against Starbucks, arguing that the company’s actions will have a chilling effect on workers who would otherwise assert their rights.

Labor board officials have previously found merit in some of the union’s claims. A different regional director recently filed charges against Starbucks for terminating a group of Tennessee workers known as the Memphis Seven.

In another case, the labor board’s general counsel went to federal court seeking a temporary injunction to have three Starbucks workers put back on the job. The general counsel accused Starbucks of targeting the workers for their union support.

This story has been updated with comment from Starbucks.

Read the full complaint below:

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