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48Knowledge TrackerHow Faux-Progressive Starbucks Is Fighting Unionization

Denying raises to its unionized baristas appears to be an effective, if illegal, tactic—at least, until the NLRB clamps down on it.

With its purple-haired baristas and its many LGBTQ employees, Starbucks has long held itself out as a progressive and humane employer. But Starbucks has shown itself to be anything but progressive and humane in the punitive and harsh way it has responded to a historic unionization campaign.

From the earliest days of the campaign, Starbucks has taken a fierce approach toward stifling the union. With each passing month, many baristas say, Starbucks has been playing dirtier and dirtier as it searches for ever more effective anti-union tactics. To many baristas, Starbucks has been sending a clear anti-union message: If you dare seek to unionize, bad things could suddenly happen to you—you could get fired, your hours and benefits could get cut, your store could close, you might not get the raise that other baristas will receive.

Last October, after workers at three Starbucks in Buffalo became the first at company-operated stores to petition for a unionization vote, Starbucks moved to crush the effort, closing one of those stores temporarily and turning another into a training center. Starbucks also sent more than 100 managers from other cities into Buffalo; the baristas said they’d been sent to intimidate and spy on them. Notwithstanding such union-busting moves, the momentum toward unionization seemed nearly unstoppable. Last December, soon after workers at the Elmwood store in Buffalo voted, 19-8, to become the first company-operated Starbucks in the U.S. to unionize, workers at dozens of other Starbucks petitioned for union elections. In those first few months, Starbucks Workers United won around 90 percent of the unionization votes, an extraordinarily high percentage. Many victories were unanimous or lopsided, like 30-2 or 24-1.

As the baristas’ campaign continued to surge, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and the company’s anti-union law firm, Littler Mendelson, rummaged around for other ways to squash the union drive. In February, Starbucks fired seven workers at a Memphis café for supposedly violating their store’s rules—those seven were nearly everyone on that store’s union organizing committee. Asserting that those seven firings constituted illegal retaliation, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) went to federal court to seek an emergency injunction to win those workers’ reinstatement.

Firing prominent pro-union workers is a common practice among American corporations: It decapitates organizing drives, sows chaos, and frightens workers. One study has found that nearly 1 in 5 rank-and-file, pro-union worker activists are fired during unionization drives.

The union says Starbucks has illegally fired more than 70 baristas in retaliation for backing the union. Starbucks responds that all those workers were fired for legitimate reasons, like poor work performance or failing to follow company rules. But those seven firings backfired, with Starbucks facing not just a firestorm of outrage on social media, but also street protests in Memphis and elsewhere.

Firings have been just one part of Starbucks’s anti-union arsenal. The company has also cut the hours of many baristas in stores seeking to unionize, even as it hired on new baristas. Many workers said these reductions in hours aimed to get pro-union workers to quit because it cut their weekly pay and caused many baristas to lose their health insurance, which Starbucks offers only to baristas who meet a certain threshold for hours worked.

"From the earliest days of the campaign, Starbucks has taken a fierce approach toward stifling the union."

These cuts in hours also backfired, having further angered baristas. Undaunted, Schultz tried a different tack. In an early May call with investors, he dropped a bombshell, announcing that Starbucks would offer raises and increased benefits to workers at its non-union stores, but not to workers at stores that had already unionized.

Schultz’s threat appears to have had the intended effect of frightening many baristas who were thinking of unionizing. Almost immediately, Starbucks Workers United said that his threat constituted unlawful discrimination and retaliation against unionized employees. Federal law makes it illegal for employers to discriminate or retaliate against workers who have unionized or are seeking to unionize. But Starbucks argues that federal labor law prohibits employers from “unilaterally” imposing wages and benefits on unionized employees. The union moved to counter that contention by sending Schultz a letter that said all the unionized stores would happily accept the raises and better benefits that Starbucks was offering its non-union workers.

In an interview, Jennifer Abruzzo, the NLRB’s general counsel, told me—without discussing the statements or tactics of any specific company—that she thinks it is clearly an unfair labor practice and illegal discrimination for a company to say it will give raises and benefits to non-union workers, but deny those raises and benefits to unionized workers who are waiting to negotiate a first contract.

Richard Bensinger, a veteran union organizer who’s been advising the baristas’ campaign, voiced deep frustration that the NLRB didn’t file a complaint immediately after Schultz made his threat—and still hasn’t filed a complaint about it. Bensinger wanted the labor board to move quickly to “nip it in the bud” to minimize the threat’s fear-provoking effect on workers.

Starbucks has begun contract negotiations with baristas at several unionized stores, but union leaders complain that virtually no progress has been made, and they fear that Starbucks could drag out negotiations for two or more years before reaching a first contract. With its double standard on pay increases, Starbucks is effectively telling its unionized workers that they won’t get any raises for two or more years, while its non-union employees received raises this summer. Many anti-union American companies deliberately slow-walk contract talks and deny workers raises during the many months that negotiations drag on. They know that tactic can be very effective in souring workers’ views on unionization.

Schultz’s threat not to give raises and benefits to unionized workers appears to have achieved its twin goals: It has scared many workers and taken some wind out of the unionization drive. As Matt Bruenig points out, in July, workers at only 14 Starbucks stores petitioned for union elections, down from 29 in June and 46 in May. The number of union victories also declined, to 23 in July, down sharply from 80 in June and 62 in May. What is more, in July, the union won far less than 90 percent of the unionization votes. (To be sure, Schultz’s threat was not the only reason for these declines—the firings no doubt also took a toll.)

Starbucks has doubled down in another way on its threat to penalize unionized workers. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the company announced it would provide abortion travel benefits to its employees but added that it couldn’t promise those benefits to workers at its unionized stores, a move that was widely denounced for exploiting the Dobbs decision to engage in union-busting.

Recently, Starbucks unveiled yet another tactic that baristas say aims to stifle unionization. In mid-July, citing violence and drug use, the company said it was closing 16 stores for safety reasons. That came after Starbucks had closed its busiest store in Ithaca, New York, the first community where workers at every Starbucks had voted to unionize. The union sees clear anti-union animus behind these closings: 30 percent of the stores targeted for closing were unionized or face union elections, while just 3 percent of Starbucks stores nationwide have been unionized or face union votes.

And on Monday, Starbucks sent a letter to the NLRB requesting that it halt all of the elections it is holding for baristas, basing its request on one such election (there have been more than 250) in an Overland Park, Kansas, outlet, outside Kansas City, in which, the company alleges, baristas who’d requested mail ballots but hadn’t received them were permitted to vote at a local NLRB office. The company also requested that the NLRB stop permitting employees to vote by mail. The union said this was Starbucks’s latest ploy to demoralize pro-union workers and derail the union drive.

Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), workers seeking to unionize are supposedly guaranteed a free and fair election, but it’s hard to see how union elections at Starbucks can be free and fair when the company threatens its workers in so many ways. The NLRB has brought 19 complaints against Starbucks alleging hundreds of illegal union-busting actions by the company, but that hasn’t stopped Starbucks from pressing ahead as aggressively as ever.

A big problem with the NLRA is that it doesn’t allow for any fines against Starbucks or any other anti-union company, no matter how often they violate the law in seeking to quash unionization efforts. If a company is found guilty of violating that law, the “penalty” or “remedy” is often just posting a notice on the bulletin board admitting that it broke the law.

The proposed Protecting the Right to Organize Act would have enabled the NLRB to hit law-breaking employers with substantial fines, but a Republican filibuster has blocked that bill from passing. Until Congress amends the NLRA to allow for serious fines (which would probably require Senate Democrats to abolish the filibuster), anti-union companies will continue to feel they have a bright green light to flout the law while fighting unions.

The unionization drive at Starbucks has been one of the most exciting developments in the labor movement in decades. The campaign has been impressive and inspiring, with its energy, creativity, solidarity, and worker-to-worker organizing. It would be tragic—and hugely frustrating to the many baristas who want a stronger voice on the job—if Starbucks’s clever and calculated use of union-busting tactics, along with its ability to exploit weaknesses in the law, slowly strangles the baristas’ union drive. If that happens, that would show, yet again, how broken America’s labor laws are and how fiercely anti-union many American corporations are, even supposedly progressive ones like Starbucks. They dread the idea of giving employees a stronger voice at work because, heaven forfend, that could interfere with their overriding goal: maximizing profits.

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