Starbucks’ Howard Schultz Should Win an Award for the Nation’s Most Flagrant Union Buster

The surprise union victories at Starbucks in recent months were an inspiration to millions around the United States. But Starbucks is now pulling out all the stops to engage in one of the most flagrant union-busting campaigns in recent memory.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz appears on Fox & Friends, 2019. (Steven Ferdman / Getty Images)

There seems little doubt at this point that Howard Schultz deserves the title of the nation’s worst union buster. Since returning to Starbucks as CEO in April, Schultz has overseen a scorched-earth policy against Starbucks workers who are trying to organize nationwide. His latest tactic: terrify workers with the threat of store closures. Along with the termination of union activists, the threat of workplace closures has been among employers’ most chilling anti-union tactics for decades.

Starbucks has almost nine thousand corporate-owned stores in the United States. It closes stores for all sorts of reasons. But the company just so happened to recently close sixteen stores for “safety” reasons, and has threatened that “there will be many more in the midst of a successful union campaign.

Starbucks Workers United has now won two hundred elections over the past seven months, fifty-two of them unanimously. But it has also seen a ferocious and unlawful anti-union campaign. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has over two hundred open unfair labor practice cases against Starbucks, a number that most companies would take years to rack up, and Starbucks is currently facing a trial in which the NLRB says it committed over two hundred individual violations of labor law in Buffalo alone during the initial campaign last fall. Workers say Starbucks fired them, threatened them, spied on them, offered them unlawful benefits, and forced them to listen to hours and hours of group and individual anti-union meetings. And it closed stores.

The announcement of closures must be understood in the context of this anti-union crime wave. Workers already know that, individually and collectively, they risk negative consequences if they decide to organize. Starbucks’ anti-union campaign is based on fear and futility: fear of losing one’s jobs or benefits, fear of having your store closed, and the sense that even if workers vote to unionize, Starbucks will never give up its opposition to the union. This latest move by Starbucks HQ is intended to heighten that sense of fear and futility around organizing.

Closures Target Organizing Stores

To date, only about 3 percent of Starbucks stores have seen active organizing campaigns, but 30 percent of the stores slated for permanent closure allegedly have active union campaigns. Two of the five stores slated for closure in Seattle are unionized, and one store in Portland is awaiting its NLRB election, which is currently scheduled for its final day of business.

There’s no reason to doubt that Schultz would use the closures to send a message to workers who might be thinking of organizing. Workers at Starbucks stores have long raised concerns about safety issues rarely addressed by management. Workers who organize are also more likely to complain about unacceptable working conditions, such as health and safety issues.

Did Starbucks close the stores because of worker complaints? How many stores received worker complaints over safety concerns but were not closed? And why did Starbucks HQ not simply address the underlying issues instead of closing the stores?

Clearly Against the Law

The law is crystal clear that a company cannot close a workplace to send a message to workers in other outlets about organizing, and the NLRB will likely rule that Starbucks’ store closures are a violation of the federal law. The leading case in this vein is the 1965 Supreme Court decision Textile Workers Union of America v. Darlington Manufacturing Co. The court held that an employer is not engaged in an unfair labor practice when it permanently closes the entire business, even if the liquidation is motivated by vindictiveness toward a union, but a partial closing is an unfair labor practice under Section 8(a)(3) of the National Labor Relations Act “if motivated by a purpose to chill unionism in any of the remaining plants of the single employer and if the employer may reasonably have foreseen that such closing would likely have that effect.”

Darlington closed one plant as a warning to workers organizing at another plant. The Court stated that a business justification for closing a facility, or going out of business, is a winning argument, even if motivated by anti-union animus — but not if closures create a chilling atmosphere around organizing among workers at other facilities.

Unionized workers picket outside a Starbucks location in Boston, Massachusetts, July 19, 2022. (M. Scott Brauer / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Thus, if the decision were based solely on business considerations, Starbucks can close whatever stores it wants, but the NLRB can order it to continue operations in cases of unlawful closures. In the case of Starbucks’ recent announcement, the closures (and the announcement of many future closures in the works) will clearly have a chilling effect on workers considering unionizing. Fox Rothschild, a law firm that helps employers “thwart” union-organizing efforts, makes this clear: “An employer cannot close a facility due to union activity in order to inhibit unionization at other plants. . . . Where a decision to close is based on anti-union animus and aimed at employees at other locations, such a closing will be deemed to be unlawful.”

However, as always, the board’s processes are vulnerable to abuse by Starbucks and its union-avoidance law firm. If the NLRB were to rule against Starbucks and order it to reopen stores, considerations like dilatory tactics, appeals, and “proof of impossibility” could delay or even prevent enforcement. By then, the closures and threats of additional closures will already have served their purpose of scaring workers and disrupting the union campaign.

Attacking the Union With Store Closures

Starbucks HQ has repeatedly used store closures to disrupt the union campaign. Starbucks closed two unionizing stores during the initial organizing in Buffalo last fall. One of those stores, at Walden-Anderson, was changed into a “training center” for weeks, shortly after it petitioned for an NLRB election in September before reopening in November. At the time of the closure, it was the second-strongest union store in Buffalo.

But by November, the damage had been done.

Because of the impact of malicious closure, Walden-Anderson didn’t get its first NLRB election until March, which, against all odds, the union narrowly won. But this was followed by a recount with several additional votes. Because several ballots didn’t arrive in time, resulting in a tied vote with one vote contested, the NLRB subsequently ordered a revote, which also ended in a tied ballot with the outcome dependent on several challenged ballots.

When the history of the Starbucks campaign is finally written, the Walden-Anderson store will provide a case study in Starbucks’ wantonly unlawful union busting and the NLRB’s insufficient efforts to protect workers’ fair choice.

Starbucks also closed a second unionizing store, the Walden Galleria location, in Buffalo last fall, September 2, shortly after workers started organizing. In May, the Buffalo NLRB regional director ordered Starbucks to reopen the store in its sweeping complaint, listing over two hundred separate violations of federal labor law. Starbucks is contesting that decision before an administrative law judge, and likely also before the full NLRB, and the store remains closed. Starbucks also temporarily closed the Elmwood Village store during the organizing campaign, allegedly for “remodeling.” On December 9, Elmwood became the first ever store to vote to unionize with Starbucks Workers United. The Buffalo store closings were part of what workers say was Starbucks HQ’s all-hands-on-deck, desperate, egregious law-breaking effort to stop the campaign and make sure that it did not spread beyond Buffalo.

Prior to last week’s closure announcement, Starbucks also closed a unionized store in Ithaca, New York. In June, it announced the permanent closure of one of the three stores that had voted to unionize in Ithaca, the first town in the country in which Starbucks went entirely union, in early April. The actual letter on the closures was sent not from Starbucks but from Littler Mendelson lawyer Alan Model. It read, “Nice to meet you. This email is to let you know that today Starbucks will inform the College Ave. partners that it intends to permanently close the College Ave. store for business reasons.”

After voting 19-1 to unionize in April, workers at the Ithaca store (a busy store next to the Cornell campus) subsequently went on strike in protest against the long-standing problems with what workers say is a malfunctioning grease trap. Starbucks later used the grease trap issue— along with “staffing and attendance” issues, which workers say were a direct consequence of management cutting hours — as justification for closing the strongly pro-union store.

Other Starbucks stores have problematic grease traps — which are common occurrences and often easily remedied; YouTube has hundreds of videos on how to fix them — or other infrastructure issues that Starbucks could use as a justification for closing stores. Workers at several stores have complained about the infrastructure issues, and in many of these cases, Starbucks management has done nothing, which is the reason that many workers now believe that collective bargaining is the only way to address such problems.

Now, instead of fixing the underlying problems, Starbucks is closing the stores and sending a message to workers thinking of organizing: if your store has any problems that could justify Starbucks closing it down and you start organizing, you could be next. Thousands of stores likely fall into this category.

The Chilling Impact of Store Closures

Seattle and Portland have been strongholds for the union campaign. Starbucks is closely associated with the former, its hometown, and has done everything possible to undermine worker support for unionization there.

The flagship roastery in Seattle voted to unionize by 38-27 in April. Starbucks is still contesting the result, most recently claiming that the mail-in ballot had depressed turnout, even though two-thirds of the workers voted. In May, the company announced plans to restructure several stores in Seattle, combining the original store in Pike Place, the flagship store at 1st and Pike (where workers voted to unionize in June), and the store at 1st and University into a “Heritage Market.” Workers at the three stores were told to reapply for their jobs; many were unsuccessful or unable to make the application deadline.

Over the past few weeks, several unionized Seattle stores have engaged in strikes against unlawful union busting. Seattle workers view the five store closures in the city — including two unionized stores — as another unlawful unionbusting tactic by an increasingly lawless company.

Starbucks HQ understands well what impact the threat of store closures will have on workers who are thinking of becoming involved in activism. Workers are already fearful of unlawful termination — over forty workers have been fired during the union campaign so far — and losing their benefits and wage increases. Now they will also fear that if they decide to organize, Starbucks management will find any excuse to close their store — because of “safety” reasons, because of a malfunctioning grease trap, or because of understaffing and scheduling issues. As one worker currently on strike at a unionized store near Boston University explained, “We are so understaffed, we’re being set up to fail every day.”

We don’t yet know what the outcome will be for the inspirational Starbucks Workers United campaign. But one thing is certain: Howard Schultz will now go down in infamy as one of the country’s most brutal, hypocritical, and egregious union busters.