Battle for Starbucks unions slow to produce results like contracts

On Tuesday, employees at three Starbucks locations in the Buffalo, New York, area celebrated a milestone — it’s been a year since they officially announced their intention to form a union. In the months following the announcement, a majority of workers at two of those stores voted to unionize, sparking a wave of momentum that then spread to hundreds of locations across the United States.

But the organizing employees allege the company responded with layoffs, store closings and other retaliatory behavior, allegations the company denies. Now, as the union’s attention turns to the courts, the initial momentum is beginning to wane. In July, petitions to organize new Starbucks stores fell 80% from the peak in March.

Through July, the most recent month with complete NLRB data, employees at 326 Starbucks locations filed petitions for union elections. In the past 20 years, no other American company has seen its employees file more than 100 complaints in 12 months.

While the stores make up just 3.6% of the roughly 9,000 U.S. locations run by Starbucks, the volume of petitions is rare among recent labor movements. Starbucks petitions account for about 20% of all new filings with the NLRB this year. And when petitioning store workers held elections, workers voted to unionize about 80% of the time.

Starbucks employees who spoke with Bloomberg News said they love their jobs, their co-workers and their stores. But employees said a union could help raise wages, promote health and safety conditions in stores and protect employees from chronic understaffing situations. In a statement to Bloomberg News, Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges said unions are not a good fit for the company and Starbucks prefers to work directly with workers to bring about change.

The group supporting the movement, Starbucks Workers United, has faced the challenge of organizing hundreds of stores with fewer employees than a typical workplace. Organizers relied on strong networks among Starbucks employees across the country.

When Alisha Humphrey, an Oklahoma City barista, saw stores in New York organize, she reached out to Starbucks employees involved in the labor campaign. She quickly learned on Zoom how to make organizing conversations easier. “Before we even won our election, I was kind of helping out other interested stores,” Humphrey said.

The ensuing surge began in urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest, where Starbucks employees were about twice as likely to organize as company workers elsewhere. Less than 2% of Starbucks locations in rural areas have formally requested representation.

The push has been especially strong in college towns, like Ann Arbor, Michigan and Eugene. Locations that petitioned to unionize were typically 1.75 miles from the nearest college or university campus, with non-petitioning stores nearly twice as far. Ithaca, New York – home to Cornell University – is the only city where every store has voted to unionize.

“(Starbucks) cultivated this image that you know of coffee shops, college towns, they calculated that. And now it’s coming back to bite them,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Labor, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Casey Moore, a barista in Buffalo and a member of the National Starbucks Workers United Communications Committee, said the leaders of the movement were younger, more progressive and more LGBTQ. For transgender workers, Starbucks is one of the only part-time jobs that offers gender-affirming health care. But this more liberal workforce has also shown a recent interest in unionizing, which Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has said is unnecessary at the company.

“It’s great that you’re offering these benefits,” Moore said. “But then you threaten to take them away. So how progressive are you really? »

Borges denied that the company is threatening to remove benefits.

As the union push has intensified, labor organizers say Starbucks has increasingly turned to union-busting tactics, such as closing stores and firing workers. Company employees filed 283 unfair labor practice complaints with the NLRB in the past year. The documents contain more than 600 allegations that Starbucks violated labor laws. The volume of complaints is the highest of any private employer in the United States during this period and 30% more than its closest counterpart, UPS, which has almost twice as many employees as Starbucks.

“This is the most retaliatory campaign I’ve seen in over 40 years – by far,” said Richard Bensinger, senior adviser to Starbucks Workers United and former organizing director of the AFL- CIO. Borges denied the allegations of anti-union activity. In a statement to Bloomberg News, he said the closures were due to safety concerns and the terminated employees violated company policies.

In May, the NLRB formally charged Starbucks with more than 200 labor violations and sought four injunctions against the company this year; no other American company has more than one. One of these injunctions was rejected in June. On August 18, a federal judge ruled that Starbucks must offer the reinstatement of seven terminated pro-union employees at a Memphis, Tennessee, facility.

“Starbucks makes these stores, especially union stores, really stressful places to work. So my staff come into work every day and we’re scared,” said Sam Amato, a recently fired shift supervisor from a Buffalo store. “We are afraid that a small mistake will send us home or get us fired.”

When Starbucks recently closed 19 stores — largely for safety reasons — the locations were disproportionately pro-union. According to Starbucks Workers United, 42% of closed stores had union activity, compared to 4% of sites nationwide that applied to unionize.

“There has been no union consideration with regard to these closures,” Borges said earlier this month.

The closures and charges come amid a growing number of Starbucks employee strikes. According to work stoppage data tracked by Bloomberg Law, 1 in 5 strikes this year have come from Starbucks employees, and many cite company retaliatory action as the reason for the strike.

On Monday, none of the stores where employees voted to unionize had won a collective agreement with the company. Labor experts say this could dampen union momentum. “Just delay and these unions wither on the vine and the penalties don’t seem very strong – even the public relations penalty wouldn’t seem so severe.” Lichtenstein said.

Now, in addition to the growing legal situation, the union is also dealing with a recent downturn in filings for representation. In July, employees at 14 new stores petitioned to unionize, the lowest volume for any given month in 2022. So far this month, only seven new petitions have been filed through Monday.

The union is still turning most of these petitions into successful elections, but votes are getting tighter and losses have become more frequent. As late as April, the union generally won elections, with 80% of employees voting in favor of unionization. In July, that rate fell to 63%, as the union lost 12 of 34 elections with certified results. It was also the first month in which several elections had turnout below 60%.

These patterns raise questions about what happens next for the union – whether it can reignite the spring surge or whether the downturn can be part of the natural pattern of union organizing.

“You organize the easy ones first, then the others will come,” Lichtenstein said.

Organizers said they are determined to continue even as the focus shifts to layoffs and store closings, as well as the next big step in negotiating contracts with Starbucks for unionized stores.

“Organization continues and it will continue because workers want and deserve the right to have a voice,” Bensinger said. “We are fighting for the right of all Starbucks workers to organize without fear, intimidation and threats.”

Methodology: Data on petitions, counts and complaints was extracted from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for cases between August 2021 and the end of July. In some cases, a single store may be responsible for multiple petitions. The location analysis relied on publicly available data pulled from the Starbucks website and is current through November. Only stores owned and operated directly by Starbucks Corp. – rather than licensed – are included in this analysis. A similar union effort is currently underway in licensed stores. Election results are deemed final after five business days, unless the disputed ballots are decisive or an objection has been filed on the NLRB website.

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