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Starbucks' caffeinated anti-union efforts may leave a bitter taste – but are they legal?

  • Written by John Logan, Professor and Director of Labor and Employment Studies, San Francisco State University
Starbucks' caffeinated anti-union efforts may leave a bitter taste – but are they legal?

Good news greeted Starbucks workers on May 3, 2022, in the shape of a promise of new pay increases. But there was a catch: Employees at unionized stores – or those planning to unionize – shouldn’t expect to see a dime[1] of this hike.

As far as efforts to discourage workers from supporting union drives go, the move by Starbucks appears pretty blatant. And it comes as the coffee chain sees a massive surge of union activity[2].

Since its first victory at two stores in Buffalo in December 2021, Starbucks Workers United has now filed for union elections at over 250 stores[3] – comprising over 6,600 employees – in over 30 states, according to the National Labor Relations Board. Moreover, the union has won 54 of the 64 elections conducted to date, many by overwhelming margins.

As a scholar of organized labor[4], I find the growth of the union movement at Starbucks remarkable. But it has also prompted what I would characterize as a remarkably aggressive stance against unions among executives at the coffee chain. Starbucks management appears intent on halting unionizing momentum among employees – even if that means risking sanction from the federal watchdog. Indeed, on May 6, a regional director of the NLRB issued a complaint against the coffee chain[5] over prior instances of anti-union tactics that the labor official deemed to have strayed across the line of what is legal.

Anti-union or pro-Starbucks?

In announcing the promised pay raise to nonunionized workers, Howard Schultz, who returned to Starbucks as interim CEO in March 2022, suggested that federal law prohibits Starbucks “from promising new wages and benefits at stores involved in union organizing.” Union representatives counter that nothing in law stops Starbucks from offering such benefits to workers at unionized stores.

Moreover, they say that threatening to withhold wage increases amounts to an illegal attempt to coerce workers[6] and have filed a formal complaint[7] with the NLRB.

It is not the first time Schultz, who says he is not “anti-union” but “pro-Starbucks[8],” has picked a fight with workers looking to unionize. In April, he told workers at a public forum that if they are unhappy working at Starbucks, they should seek employment elsewhere[9] and claimed that American corporations nationwide are “under assault” by unions.

The CEO also blamed organizing at Starbucks stores on “so-called workers” and an “outside force[10]” – comments that appear at odds with the reality of what is going on at his stores. A quirk of the recent spate of unionizing efforts at Starbucks is that it is worker-driven[11], in that it is young employees spearheading the drive and spreading the word to other stores.

This grassroots approach is nullifying many of the traditional anti-union tactics. Not only does it counter the claim that unionizing is being forced on workers from outsiders who may not have their best interests in mind, it also makes it harder for anti-union messages to go unchallenged. For example, group captive audience meetings[12] – in which employees are mandated to attend sessions at which they are urged not to join a union – have proved less effective in part because pro-union workers have ensured that at least one activist is present to counter what is being said. And I have been told by organizers that at several Starbucks stores, workers have made a collective decision to refuse to attend[13] such meetings.

Reputational risk

In the face of diminishing returns for traditional efforts to persuade workers against unionizing, Starbucks appears to be upping the intensity. But going to war with its pro-union workers involves significant reputation risk for Starbucks – something the company itself has seemingly acknowledged. In a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company warned investors[14]: “Our responses to any union organizing efforts could negatively impact how our brand is perceived and have adverse effects on our business, including on our financial results.”

Starbucks is already facing uncomfortable headlines over its anti-union practices and the mounting number of complaints that they have prompted.

Since the union campaign started in August 2021, Starbucks Workers United has filed 112 separate unfair labor practices charges against the company, prompting former NLRB chair William Gould to note[15], “I can’t think of anything that has generated this many cases.”

Then on May 6, 2022, a director for the NLRB’s Buffalo region issued a sweeping complaint against Starbucks[16]. It covered over 200 instances of what it claims to be unlawful anti-union behavior. They included allegations of terminating, disciplining and surveilling pro-union workers; closing pro-union stores for several months and promising increased benefits to staff who refuse to unionize.

Such NLRB complaints follow an investigation into claims of labor violations and indicate that the board has found merit in the complaints.

To provide relief, the complaint requires Starbucks[17] to put in place what amounts to a laundry list of remedies, including reinstating fired workers, providing training for Starbucks managers on workers’ rights and allowing equal time for unions to address employees.

It also calls on Schultz or Starbucks’ executive vice president Rossann Williams – who ran the anti-union campaign in Buffalo last year – to record themselves reading a notice explaining to staff that they have a right to form a union, and for that recording to be distributed to every store in the U.S.

Starbucks has indicated that it will contest the regional NLRB complaint. In a statement, the company said[18], “We believe the allegations contained in the complaint are false, and we look forward to presenting our evidence.”

An NLRB with more bite?

Regardless of what the NLRB complaint says, or what the board rules in regard to the denial of promised pay increases, Starbucks’ apparent efforts to slow union momentum may have some success.

The Starbucks union recently suffered unexpected losses in Hawaii[19] and Florida[20].

Part of the problem facing worker-organizers is that it can take time to make charges of unfair anti-union practices stick.

The NLRB has for decades been hampered by delays in its processes. It can take months for a ruling to come down, and if a company appeals the board’s decision to a federal court, it can take years – by which time the damage to a union campaign may have already been done[21].

Labor organizers will be hoping that the recent complaint against Starbucks will portend a decisiveness and desire to move more quickly at the NLRB under the Biden administration.

President Joe Biden likes to tout his pro-union credentials. Indeed, he recently welcomed a pro-union Starbucks worker[22] to the White House, prompting the company to demand that it get a similar invitation[23].

But Biden’s credentials as the self-proclaimed[24] “most pro-union president in American history” may hang on how his administration, through the NLRB, is able to crack down on anti-union practices when they cross over the line.

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