Starbucks Is Breaking Ground as One of the Worst Union Busters in Recent Memory

Starbucks and its union-busting law firm are pulling out all the stops in Seattle in an attempt to destroy the union push that has swept the country.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz appears willing to go to extraordinary lengths — even being prepared to risk destroying the company he created in order to break the union — to maintain unilateral control of the workplace. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The Starbucks Workers United union campaign has now won over 164 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections, and over 300 stores have petitioned for NLRB elections. But since the campaign first went public in August of last year, Starbucks HQ and its union-avoidance law form, Littler Mendelson, has mounted a blistering anti-union campaign to try to stop workers from self-organizing: it has fired workers, threatened them with loss of benefits, closed stores, reduced workers hours to get them to quit, promised rewards to those who agree to oppose the union, spied on pro-union workers and subjected them to endless hours of coercive group and, especially, individual anti-union meetings. Starbucks’s is one of the worst, most brutal, most mean-spirited anti-union efforts of recent decades.

Now, in the company’s hometown of Seattle, Starbucks is restructuring its operations in an effort to create a multiple-store bargaining unit – a “Heritage District” of three stores – which would undermine organizing activity at one of its most prized stores. But just as has happened at other pro-union stores — in Seattle, Portland, Eugene, Boston, Buffalo, Ithaca, Richmond, Virginia, Overland Park, Kansas, Columbia, South Carolina, and elsewhere — Starbucks workers at one of the proposed Heritage District stores, which has already petitioned for a NLRB election, are striking to protest management’s unlawful anti-union practices.

Few corporations are associated as closely with their home cities as Starbucks is with Seattle. The company’s first store, which opened in March 1971 in Pike Place Market, plays an important role in the Starbucks’s history and folklore. Today, the store is a tourist destination (customers regularly queue up to get in) that sells an enormous amount of company merchandise. The second important Pike Place store, located at First and Pike — the store that appears on countless photos of the iconic market — is also critical to its corporate identity, and Starbucks HQ would be loath to allow workers at either of these two stores to vote union.

Freed From Management’s Watchful Eye, Starbucks Workers Go Union

One reason that Starbucks union drive has been so successful is its stores’ relative lack of managerial supervision. Store managers don’t often work on the floor, which means baristas have plenty of time to talk union. When they are left to decide for themselves, they overwhelmingly choose to unionize, even in some of the most conservative parts of the country.

Starbucks’s original Pike Place Market store, on the other hand, has three to four store managers — and mostly long-term workers, many of whom identify closely with management. The First and Pike store is standard-sized (the average size of bargaining units has been twenty-six) and has two store managers — one of whom was flown to Buffalo for the anti-union shock-and-awe campaign last fall — and one assistant store manager.

Despite this significantly higher number of management personnel, organizing at the First and Pike store started in April and was given an added impetus by the abrupt Heritage District announcement. As in other stores that have organized, workers endured several group and individual captive-audience meetings. Yet in the first week of June, fifteen of its twenty-three employees signed union cards, and the store petitioned for an NLRB election. If Starbucks gets its way, these workers may never get to vote for a union.

Moreover, workers in the other stores are equally unhappy, with one worker from the original store posting a long, critical comment on the reorganization plan on Reddit. She subsequently reached out to the union. The worker at the original Pike Place Starbucks store wrote, “Another big reason behind this I think is to prevent the spread of unions. Our stores are so close to unionizing but to prevent it from spreading to other districts they cut us off from the rest of the company.”

Starbucks Believes Multistore Bargaining Units Would Kill the Organizing Campaign

Starbucks has repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, tried to get the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to sanction multistore bargaining units, in the belief that this would undermine organizing. One big union-avoidance firm wrote, “Had Starbucks prevailed in that argument, it may have been able to get more baristas who were not in favor of a union to participate and change the outcome.” Another stated, “Starbucks knows it has the votes if you include all of the stores that it seeks to include.” Union-avoidance law firms have long sought to manipulate bargaining units to undermine worker organizing, usually by padding the unit with employees they believe will vote against the union.

Littler Mendelson lawyers argued at the board last year that the first bargaining unit should be composed of every single Buffalo Starbucks store — about twenty-one stores in total, most of which were not engage in organizing activity at the time — instead of having store-by-store NLRB elections, which have always been the norm for such elections in the food-service sector.

The regional director and then the full NLRB rejected Starbucks’s arguments. But its lawyers continued to appeal single-store bargaining units, while presenting no new facts, at regional boards around the country, in order to delay the elections and vote counts by months.

The Heritage District Is Designed to Get Multistore Units

In Seattle, Starbucks hopes it has figured out how to get the NLRB to accept a multistore bargaining unit. In late May, it announced plans to combine three separate stores: its original store, opened in 1971, in Pike Place Market; its flagship store at First and Pike on the corner of the market; and a newer store at First and University into a so-called “Heritage District,” which it says represents the “past, present, and future” of Starbucks. (The store at First and University — “the future” — is cashless, pickup, and mobile order only.)

Starbucks has told workers at the three stores that Heritage District baristas will not be assigned to any particular store but will receive additional training (and a 5 percent raise) that will enable them to rotate between the three stores, and it hopes that this interchange of workers will persuade the NLRB to agree to a multistore bargaining unit.

Starbucks’s reorganization plan is undoubtedly motivated by its determination to keep the union out of its two landmark stores at Pike Place Market. Combining the three stores in order to dilute pro-union workers and obstruct the organizing drive at the First and Pike store (which recently petitioned for an election) would be illegal; the NLRB would weigh the timing of Starbucks’s restructuring plans and its knowledge of union activity at the store or any other evidence of anti-union animus.

Given the vast resources it’s devoting to its anti-union campaign, Starbucks will try to prove its reorganization was planned before the union campaign at First and Pike started. If the board were to accept a three-store bargaining unit —though, given Starbucks’s national pattern of unlawful anti-unionism, it shouldn’t — Starbucks should not be allowed to combine further individual stores into a single unit, and its future plans to combine more stores should be considered deeply suspect.

But the restructuring doesn’t just involve egregious manipulation of bargaining units.

As part of the restructuring process, workers at all three stores were abruptly informed that they must reapply for their positions, told current workers at the stores will not be given any preference, and were given extremely limited time to arrange mandatory interviews. This announcement, which has caused significant worker anger and confusion, spurred renewed organizing at the Firstand Pike store, which had first started in April. The store’s lead organizer is confident they would have comprehensively won the election, just like other unionizing Starbucks stores in Seattle have done.

Most of the workers at the First and Pike store signed cards, and four members of the organizing committee signed the letter to Howard Schultz asking for union recognition. Thus, known union supporters are having to reinterview for their jobs. Starbucks personnel conducting the hiring process apparently includes the store managers from First and Pike, who undoubtedly know their union supporters, and district managers who have been involved in anti-union campaigns at other nearby Seattle stores that have organized.

One worker from Fifth and Pike who had helped organize the store and participated in an unfair labor practice (ULP) strike was interviewed by a district manager who had worked there to keep it operating during the strike. Workers at Fifth and Pike voted unanimously for union representation, as did workers at the first Seattle store to unionize. So management knows that any applicants from those stores, or from others that voted union overwhelmingly, are likely supporters of the union.

Several workers from First and Pike and, likely, from other stores were unable to interview because they attend school or work a second job during the allotted days and times, and they say management made little or no effort to accommodate them. If any worker’s application is unsuccessful, they will be transferred to another store; when transferring stores, Starbucks workers must list their top three preferences, but they are not guaranteed to get these stores, and transferring out employees from all three stores will likely cause a huge disruption for workers.

Pro-union workers at First and Pike will seek justice at the NLRB. Starbucks Workers United has filed a complaint against the company for removing pro-union workers from their jobs and increasing interrogations and surveillance at the store. But this will take time, and Starbucks and its Littler Mendelson lawyers know that delay is frequently a killer for union campaigns. NLRB ULP hearings on Starbucks’s store restructuring and rehiring process could disclose more evidence of anti-union animus, but even an incompetent management lawyer can manage to abuse the board’s proceedings for the purposes of delay.

On Saturday workers at the First and Pike store participated in a ULP strike to protest Starbucks’s union busting. The following two days, management told them not to report to work but said they would be paid. Then on Tuesday, several workers at the store received notification that they no longer work there. Those who had reapplied and interviewed for their positions were told that they would be transferred to other stores; it’s not yet clear what will happen to those who were unable to reinterview within the limited time period made available by Starbucks.

Starbucks Workers United has filed a ULP charge on both the structuring plan and now also on the involuntary transfers and potential layoffs. The NLRB will likely need to scrutinize the hiring process for the Heritage District stores. Starbucks could have packed the new three-store Heritage District unit with workers who are not already pro-union simply by not hiring known union supporters from the First and Pike store.

Discrimination against union supporters in hiring is unlawful, as are layoffs and involuntary transfers intended to get rid of “troublemakers.” The situation is still murky, but all of these issues could be at play here. The board understands well these kinds of anti-union tactics, and if pro-union workers were to lose their jobs as a result of the anti-union reorganization plan, the regional NLRB director can seek a federal court order known as a 10(j) injunction to force Starbucks to reverse course and reinstate the laid off workers without delay.

On the same day as the workers found out that they would no longer by working at First and Pike, where some have worked for several years, the regional director in Buffalo sought a 10(j) injunction to impose a national cease and desist order against Starbucks, order it to reinstate seven fired workers, and impose a bargaining order on one store. The court order would require Starbucks to stop a variety of unlawful anti-union activities at all stores. The NLRB is clearly escalating its action against Starbucks. But as the Seattle debacle shows, it must act more quickly and more decisively in order to stop the union busting from derailing the union campaign.

The Man Who Would Break His Company to Break the Union

If the board needs any further evidence of Starbucks’s anti-union animus — which is centralized, affecting stores nationwide, and coming from the very top of the company — it need look no further than Howard Schultz’s recent filmed interview with the New York Times. Schultz announced he would never agree to engage with the union because of the potential negative impact that would have on the customer experience.

Unfortunately for him, the question is not whether a “third party” might be bad for the customer experience, but whether collective bargaining is what his employees want. But Schultz appears willing to go to extraordinary lengths — even being prepared to risk destroying the company he created in order to break the union — to maintain unilateral control of the workplace. So it should not come as a surprise that Starbucks would restructure the organization of its stores in order to rid its two prize stores of union supporters and thus keep the union out.

The developments in Seattle could have a national significance for the union campaign. Starbucks’s reorganization plan in Seattle could be a harbinger for its future anti-union plans. Just as the inspirational and innovative Starbucks Workers United campaign has been rewriting the rules of union organizing at powerful anti-union corporations, so too Starbucks HQ  and its law firm have been rewriting the rules of union busting. For decades, the NLRB has allowed powerful anti-union corporations to abuse its cumbersome processes and inadequate remedies, thereby making it the place where union campaigns go to die. The Joe Biden NLRB must not let Starbucks’s egregious Heritage District union busting in Seattle succeed.