Starbucks Union Says Howard Schultz Broke The Law During New York Times Interview

Starbucks Workers United filed unfair labor practice charges over the CEO’s comment that he could never embrace a union.
Andrew Ross Sorkin and Howard Schultz speak on stage at the New York Times DealBook/DC policy forum on June 9 in Washington, D.C.
Andrew Ross Sorkin and Howard Schultz speak on stage at the New York Times DealBook/DC policy forum on June 9 in Washington, D.C.
Leigh Vogel via Getty Images

The union that represents Starbucks workers at roughly 150 stores has accused CEO Howard Schultz of violating labor law during a public interview with The New York Times this week, and has filed charges against the company at the National Labor Relations Board.

Starbuck Workers United says that in a conversation with journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin at the Times’ DealBook D.C. policy forum on Thursday, Schultz threatened to refuse to bargain in good faith with the union. The charge hinges on comments Schultz made while discussing the coffee chain’s relationship with its workers in the context of the union campaign.

“We have to demonstrate to our people they can trust us,” Schultz said, which prompted Sorkin to ask if he could ever envision “doing that and embracing the union as part of it?”

Schultz flatly answered, “No.”

Both the union and the employer are required to engage in meaningful dialogue when they negotiate a contract. The union says Schultz’s remark suggests he doesn’t intend to do so, and that it sends a message to employees that unionizing would be “futile.” Conveying futility to workers is also considered an unfair labor practice under collective bargaining law.

Schultz told Sorkin he couldn’t embrace the union as part of his vision because “we are in business to exceed the expectations of our customers.” He argued that “the customer experience will be significantly challenged and ‘less than’ if a third party is integrated into our business.”

That remark appears to be the basis of the union’s third charge against Schultz: “that he made an implied or actual threat that Starbucks will lose business because customers will go elsewhere if workers unionize.”

“The union asked that the board seek an injunction related to Schultz’s comments.”

In his interview with Sorkin, Schultz said the organizing effort has challenged the company’s relationship with its workers, and that Starbucks is now “in a battle for the hearts and minds of our people, and we are going to be successful.”

The union said in its filing on Friday that Schultz has a “demonstrated propensity for using his national platform to make unlawful statements.” Starbucks Workers United previously accused Schultz of violating labor law when he announced that the company might roll out new benefits that he believed couldn’t legally be extended to new stores that are bargaining contracts.

A Starbucks spokesperson on Saturday said that the union “misrepresented the facts,” and that Starbucks would do more “working side by side rather than across the bargaining table.”

“We will bargain in good faith for those seeking third-party representation, and we will remain focused on building a future that offers the best possible Starbucks experience for our people and customers,” Reggie Borges, the spokesperson, said in an email.

When one party believes the other broke the law, filing an unfair labor practice charge is the first step. An NLRB investigator would then look into the claim to determine whether there’s merit to the charge. If there is, board officials would try to reach a settlement with Starbucks to remedy the situation, and if that fails, they could end up prosecuting a case against the company.

The union has filed a slew of unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks since launching the organizing campaign last year, and board officials have found merit in many of those charges. An NLRB regional director in Western New York recently filed a sprawling complaint against the company, saying it broke the law by terminating half a dozen pro-union workers, disciplining and surveilling others and closing two stores in the area.

“The union said in its filing on Friday that Schultz has a 'demonstrated propensity for using his national platform to make unlawful statements.'”

None of these charges have yet been litigated before an administrative law judge, however. Starbucks maintains that it hasn’t broken the law during the campaign. The company also insists that it is not “anti-union,” despite comments like those from Schultz at the DealBook forum.

In some cases, the union has asked that NLRB officials go to federal court seeking an injunction against Starbucks to stop what the union believes is illegal behavior. In its filing Friday, the union asked that the board seek an injunction related to Schultz’s comments, saying his remarks could inflict “irreparable injury” on the organizing campaign.

Earlier this week, a federal judge rejected the union’s pursuit of an injunction that would have put three union organizers back on the job in Arizona. Starbucks has fired more than 20 union organizers around the country, but the company maintains that all the terminations were justified and not retaliatory.

The people who have lost their jobs include the so-called Memphis Seven, a group of Tennessee baristas who were fired after giving an in-store interview to a local television station. Board officials are pursuing a case against the company over those firings, saying they were illegal and the workers should be reinstated.

Despite the loss of seven organizers, Starbucks Workers United recently won a decisive victory in a union election at the Memphis store, with workers voting 11-3 in favor of joining.

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