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Starbucks Is Playing With Fire

Date: May 17, 2022


Ever since a few dozen baristas began an organizing drive in Buffalo, New York, last year, Starbucks has been engaged in a crude union-busting campaign that has made a mockery of the image it has sought to portray to its customers and workforce.

Pointing to the health benefits, 401(k) match, and college tuition benefits it offers, the company has long boasted that it’s a progressive, worker-friendly employer. But that claim now rings hollow thanks to the aggressive way it has sought to crush its employees’ efforts to win more of a voice at their workplace, with Starbucks using tactic after nasty tactic from the classic union busters’ playbook.

Making things worse, Starbucks has insulted its workers’ and customers’ intelligence by pretending to do no such thing. Executives maintain they are “not anti-union,” but rather just “pro-partner”—the term the company often uses for employees—while pursuing union-busting strategies as aggressive as anything Amazon has cooked up.

Last fall, after nearly every worker at a Starbucks in Cheektowaga, just outside Buffalo, signed cards asking for a union election, becoming one of the nation’s first Starbucks to seek to unionize, the company swiftly closed the store for two months, saying it would become a training center. Starbucks dispatched the shop’s baristas to other locations, with many of the Cheektowaga workers saying the closing was a pretext to undermine their pro-union solidarity, slow their momentum, and get them to quit. They cried foul.

After the staffs at several other Starbucks around the city petitioned for union elections, headquarters shipped in dozens of out-of-town managers to work inside its Buffalo stores and essentially shadow the local employees. Even Rossann Williams, Starbucks’ president of retail for North America, was suddenly working side by side with rank-and-file baristas as they served grande caramel macchiatos.

Starbucks claimed those managers were sent not to keep tabs on workers, but rather to listen to their concerns. The company also said it sent managers to Buffalo in order to “solve operational issues” and “remodel stores.”

But many Buffalo baristas said they felt spied on and believed the managers were sent to stifle pro-union talk. A district manager from Arizona who’d been asked to go to Buffalo was also caught on tape acknowledging that it was a “last-ditch effort to try and stop” the unionization effort.

Starbucks has repeatedly said it in no way seeks to intimidate workers into voting against the union. But one Buffalo barista, Will Westlake, told of being summoned to an hourlong anti-union session where it was just him and six managers, who told him “how great all the benefits are at Starbucks, and if we vote in a union, we may not have any of those benefits.”

Telling employees that their pay and benefits could get worse with a union—which almost never actually happens—is a common tactic companies use against organizing campaigns. If having that conversation six-on-one doesn’t count as intimidation, I don’t know what does. (And on a side note: If companies really believed that having a union somehow lowered employees’ pay, wouldn’t they be eagerly encouraging their workers to organize?)

On May 2, Howard Schultz, who was recently reinstalled as CEO, evidently to help quash the fast-growing unionization effort, announced a clever—many workers will say insidious—anti-union ploy that was no doubt suggested to him by Starbucks’ $500-plus-an-hour lawyers at Littler Mendelson. ($500 is more than many Starbucks baristas earn in a week.)

With Starbucks getting trounced in union vote after union vote and dozens more union elections in the weeks ahead, Schultz announced that Starbucks would give sizable raises to its nonunion workers, but not to its unionized workers—that is, not to the workers at the more than 60 Starbucks that have already unionized.

Schultz said he couldn’t give those raises to the unionized baristas because that would be an illegal “unilateral” imposition of wages and benefits on them without the union’s agreement. But the union, Starbucks Workers United, asserts that Schultz’s move constitutes illegal discrimination against union members—a move to punish those baristas who have unionized and also to improperly chill workers’ interest in unionizing across the U.S.

Many employees say Starbucks has used another insidious strategy to sabotage union efforts: Baristas in Buffalo, Richmond, Knoxville, Eugene, Mesa, and elsewhere claim that soon after workers in their stores petitioned to hold a union election, Starbucks cut their hours while sometimes also hiring new staff.

Jenna Black, a barista in Buffalo, said her weekly hours were slashed from 25 to just 16 or 18. Notably, Starbucks workers become ineligible for benefits when their hours fall below 20 a week. Maddie VanHook, a barista in Cleveland, said that some full-time workers had their hours cut from 35 hours to 22 and that “some part-time partners are only seeing one shift a week compared to their usual three or four.”

Many workers believe Starbucks reduced hours with the express purpose of diluting strong union support in some stores; that move, workers said, encouraged pro-union baristas to quit because their weekly pay was cut sharply and they might no longer qualify for benefits. At the same time, Starbucks hired new baristas in some of those stores to further dilute union support. With this strategy, Starbucks seemed to be sending a loud message that if you seek to unionize, bad things can happen.

Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesman, says that there was no systematic cutting of hours and that Starbucks at times reduced hours not to hurt union efforts, but because business had slowed down during the winter. “Any claims of anti-union activity are categorically false,” Borges told The New York Times.

In other words, believe me, and not your lying eyes. Ever since Starbucks faced the initial unionization efforts in Buffalo, it has gone far to abandon truth and fair play. Last Friday, the National Labor Relations Board issued an unusually wide-ranging complaint against Starbucks, accusing it of more than 200 violations of the nation’s labor laws as part of its anti-union efforts in Buffalo, including firing six pro-union workers, disciplining and surveilling others, and closing stores.

Stating that Starbucks’ “egregious” anti-union conduct could cripple the organizing drives in various cities, the labor board has also taken the unusual step of going to federal court, where it has accused the company of illegally firing pro-union baristas in Memphis and Phoenix and asked that they be immediately reinstated.

It seems that Starbucks’ attitude is all is fair in love, war, and union busting. I often wonder why so many corporations try hard to comply with environmental laws, securities laws, and laws against racial discrimination and sexual harassment, but when it comes to violating federal laws in fighting a union, hey, no problem with that.

Perhaps one reason is that federal labor laws are so toothless that companies don’t face financial penalties for violating them—for instance, they can’t be fined for illegally firing workers in retaliation for leading a unionization drive. (The PRO Act, backed by President Joe Biden, but blocked by a Republican filibuster, seeks to remedy this.)

With more than 60 Starbucks unionized, and workers at dozens more likely to vote to unionize soon, a big question now is whether Starbucks will negotiate in good faith or stonewall for months and years to drag out reaching a first contract. When it comes to the union, Schultz evidently thinks his company is an immovable object. But the Starbucks union drive increasingly seems like an unstoppable force.

If Starbucks does stonewall the contract talks, I’ve also started to wonder if it could end up facing a widespread customer boycott—something on the scale of the United Farm Workers’ famous grape boycott of the 1960s. There are lots of anti-union companies, like Amazon, that have managed to avoid a powerful consumer backlash. But Starbucks, with its activist workforce and many progressive customers, might be different—especially since there are plenty of other places to get coffee. The biggest name in lattes might prove not so immovable after all.

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