Starbucks’ Union-Busting Was So Bad It Should Be Forced To Bargain: Labor Officials

A regional director with the labor board says Starbucks broke so many laws that it irreparably tainted the union election process in western New York.
The National Labor Relations Board has seen an uptick in union election petitions this year, including a slew from Starbucks workers who are organizing their stores.
The National Labor Relations Board has seen an uptick in union election petitions this year, including a slew from Starbucks workers who are organizing their stores.
via Associated Press

The union campaign at Starbucks has organized roughly 80 stores around the country in a matter of months, winning the vast majority of elections that have been held so far. CEO Howard Schultz and his team have managed to defeat the campaign at only a handful of stores where workers voted against a union.

Now it looks like one of Schultz’s few victories might end up in his loss column.

An official with the National Labor Relations Board has requested that Starbucks be ordered to bargain with the union, Workers United, at a store in the Buffalo, New York, area where the union lost an election late last year. The official argues that Starbucks tainted the process with illegal tactics and that holding a do-over election won’t cut it: The company should have to recognize the union and negotiate.

Such a request is not common at the labor board, and shows how egregious officials believe Starbucks’ behavior to have been in western New York.

“It was a really long road to get here and very frustrating to face a company that repeatedly violated labor law to coerce workers into voting ‘no,’” said Will Westlake, a pro-union barista at the store in question. “Today we can say we took notes, and the federal government agrees this was one of the worst anti-union campaigns.”

The bargaining order request is part of a complaint filed against Starbucks by Linda Leslie, a regional director for the NLRB. The filing alleges the company committed a litany of labor law violations by terminating half a dozen pro-union workers, disciplining and surveilling others, closing stores and changing work policies as it battled the organizing campaign in New York.

“It was a really long road to get here and very frustrating to face a company that repeatedly violated labor law.”

- Barista Will Westlake

The complaint was originally filed earlier this month without the bargaining order request. Leslie filed an amended complaint Thursday to include it.

That complaint will be litigated before an administrative law judge, who will decide whether Starbucks should have to bargain with workers at the store on Camp Road in Hamburg, New York. The process is subject to appeals and could take years.

In one of the first elections for the campaign, workers at the Camp Road store voted 12-8 against unionizing. A bargaining order would effectively vacate that loss and unionize the store. It would also serve as a big symbolic victory for the union campaign, which maintains that Starbucks can’t win without playing dirty.

Starbucks could not immediately be reached for comment, but the company said earlier this month that it denied all the allegations in Leslie’s broader complaint: “We believe the allegations contained in the complaint are false, and we look forward to presenting our evidence when the allegations are adjudicated.”

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and team are 9-and-79 on the season.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and team are 9-and-79 on the season.
AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File

There have been 94 ballot counts held so far for Starbucks elections, according to the NLRB. The union has won 79 and lost just nine; the results are not definitive in another six. Some election results have been challenged by either side and could change.

The labor board’s general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, has laid out an aggressive agenda that would crack down on companies that try to illegally bust unions. Abruzzo has specifically said she will try to make greater use of bargaining orders when she believes they are warranted. Officials can seek them when an employer has created such an atmosphere of intimidation that re-running an election won’t suffice.

In the complaint, Leslie argues that the firing of union supporters and other forms of retaliation make it so “traditional remedies” won’t do in the case of Camp Road. She says workers made their desire to unionize clear by a majority signing union cards, and that Starbucks should therefore have to bargain.

As part of the complaint, Leslie alleges that Starbucks tried to chill union support by permanently closing one store in the area and temporarily closing another, which was later reopened as a training center.

Richard Bensinger, an organizer with the campaign, argued that the closures were meant to have a broad effect.

“It’s not designed just to scare people at that store ― it’s to scare people all over the country,” he said.

Westlake said the workers from one of the closed stores ended up transferred to Camp Road and that, given their recent experience, they were leery of voting for the union. He believes the closure undeniably had an effect on how the Camp Road vote played out.

“They all said, ‘We tried to organize and they shut down our store,’” Westlake said. “It’s just unreal some of the things that [Starbucks] did. … You’re supposed to have a democratic process. There’s nothing less democratic than the campaign Starbucks tried to run at Camp Road.”

Starbucks executive Rossann Williams spent weeks in Buffalo last year while workers were organizing, as she and other managers tried to sway them against the union. In her complaint alleging labor law violations, Leslie says that either Williams or Schultz should have to read a script informing workers of their rights that have been violated, or stand in the presence of a board official that does so, and then have the video made available to stores around the country.

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