As more baristas around the country seek to unionize, Starbucks has used a massive legal team to slow the pace of union elections. But the coffee chain suffered a tough legal setback on Friday, all thanks to some late emails.
Workers at several stores in upstate New York recently petitioned for union elections, just like the two stores in the Buffalo area that successfully unionized last year. But Starbucks, through its lawyers from the firm Littler Mendelson, has asked the National Labor Relations Board not to move ahead with the votes, arguing that elections for individual stores aren’t appropriate. The company wants all the stores within the region grouped into one big vote.
With dozens of stores around the country looking to join the union Workers United, that argument has slowed down the legal process and bought Starbucks more time to run its campaign against the union. But the strategy ran aground in New York when Microsoft Outlook apparently crashed on Starbucks’ lawyers.
In order to make its case for the bigger union election, Starbucks had to submit what’s known as a statement of position to the labor board and the union by noon on Feb. 11. The company’s lawyers apparently didn’t get all the paperwork to the union’s lawyers until 12:08 p.m.
Alan I. Model, a lawyer for Littler Mendelson, explained the mishap in a filing to the labor board, saying the files attached to the emails were apparently too large.
“Just before noon, counsel attempted to send the complete service email a second time but was again prevented from doing so when Outlook crashed again,” Model wrote.
Ian Hayes, a Buffalo-based labor lawyer working for Workers United, argued in a filing that Starbucks shouldn’t be allowed to make its case because of the blown deadline. Starbucks argued in response that the union “suffered no prejudice” as a result of the small delay.
An official with the labor board sided with the union on Friday.
“Having carefully considered the matter, I find that the Employer’s failure to timely serve its Statement of Position precludes it from litigating any of the issues raised in its untimely Submission,” Linda M. Leslie, a regional director for the NLRB, wrote in an order.
“Starbucks had to submit what’s known as a statement of position to the labor board and the union by noon on Feb. 11. The company’s lawyers apparently didn’t get the paperwork to the union’s lawyers until 12:08 p.m.”
If Starbucks’ lawyers had sent the statement out on time, it could have easily added weeks to the timeline for elections at the New York stores. Delaying elections allows employers more time to persuade workers to vote against the union.
Starbucks can appeal the order from Leslie by asking the labor board in Washington to review it.
The legal tussle over the missed deadline is the latest indication of how the gloves have come off between Starbucks and Workers United. The union says the company’s legal case against single-store elections is a redundant waste of time. Starbucks has made essentially the same argument against each new election effort, but so far, labor board officials have knocked it down at each turn.
Board officials like Leslie might not be willing to cut the company much slack.
Starbucks said the union’s legal team had been late submitting a brief of their own in a separate case by a matter of hours, and that the company had chosen not to call them out on it with the board. The company’s filing included an email back-and-forth between Model and Hayes in which they debated whether the union’s brief was actually late under board rules (Hayes said the union had until midnight; Model said they only had until 5 p.m.).
Accusing the union of being hypocritical, Model argued that Starbucks shouldn’t be punished in part because it had extended the union a “professional courtesy” in that earlier case: “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.”
As HuffPost recently reported, Starbucks has brought on more than 30 attorneys from Littler Mendelson, a firm known for its “union avoidance” practice, to deal with the organizing wildfire that’s spreading through the chain. The union campaign, known as Starbucks Workers United, has been growing at a stunning pace, with workers at more than 100 stores requesting union elections as of Tuesday.
Starbucks has tried to blunt the campaign as best it can. After workers started organizing last year, the company dispatched managers and executives to stores in an effort to convince workers not to unionize. The company also recently created a website aimed at turning workers against the union. “We don’t believe having a union will meaningfully change or solve the problems you’ve identified in your stores,” the site says.
None of Starbucks’ roughly 9,000 corporate-owned stores had union representation until late last year when the union won two out of its first three elections. The ballots could be counted in other Starbucks elections as early as this week.