In Philadelphia, Starbucks Workers Just Won Another Victory Against Their Bosses

Last week the NLRB ruled that workers fired from a Philadelphia Starbucks for unionizing should be reinstated. The decision is part of a series of recent worker victories against a company intent on putting an end to all unionization efforts.

The Starbucks logo as seen outside a store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Kena Betancur / AFP via Getty Images)

On Monday, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered Starbucks to reinstate with back pay two Philadelphia workers that the company, valued at $123 billion, had fired. The pair of baristas had filed complaints with the NLRB alleging that Starbucks fired them for trying to form a union, among other labor-law violations.

According to the NLRB, Tristan Bussiere, Echo Nowakowska, and their coworkers began to organize in mid-2019 with the support of a labor organizer from One PA, a regional nonprofit founded by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 2011.

In July of that year, workers in their store demonstrated to call for changes to working conditions, including the removal of the manager, more accountability on several forms of discrimination, and early implementation of a local work standards regulation.

After their store manager resigned, the pair continued to organize, and Starbucks monitored their social media. According to the NLRB, Starbucks officials were discussing the store on Broad Street and Washington Avenue in October and pledging to keep “an even closer eye” on workers.

The NLRB found that in the next few months, Starbucks engaged in multiple labor-law violations, including “threatening, interrogating, and surveilling employees”; unfair actions against Bussiere and Nowkowska; and eventually the firing of the pair. The company’s actions directly affected workers in at least two stores in the city.

After filing multiple Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges with the help of Philadelphia Baristas United, in 2021, the two baristas turned down $50,000 each in a proposed settlement from the company.

Starbucks made over $4 billion in profits in 2021.

A different recent NLRB decision means that the “make-whole” orders it issues to companies must compensate for all “direct and foreseeable financial harms.” That decision applies to pending and future cases, including that of the Philadelphia baristas.

Starbucks is expected to appeal the order to reinstate and provide compensation in the Philadelphia case to the federal judiciary, the ultimate decision-making body.

An NLRB spokesperson told Jacobin that it has ordered that fifteen Starbucks workers be reinstated, though eight of these workers were brought back to work thanks to an injunction, which depended on the courts.

The NLRB is an independent federal agency charged with administering the National Labor Relations Act, not a court, and has limited enforcement powers. This opens the door to companies seeking yet another delay tactic or avenue for avoiding responsibility for labor law violations.

The victory for the two Starbucks employees and their independent union, Philadelphia Baristas United, is the latest in a string of pro-worker rulings against the company by the NLRB.

Their campaign preceded the current wave of Starbucks unionizing led by the barista network Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) with its parent union Workers United, an SEIU affiliate.

According to a list maintained by the organization More Perfect Union, neither of the stores that are mentioned in the NLRB case have affiliated with SBWU as of February 17.

The Philadelphia decision would likely have more limited implications without the broader Starbucks campaign going on nationally.

There are currently hundreds of pending ULP charges against the company or its representatives before the NLRB, the overwhelming majority generated by SBWU activities.

There are currently over 285 Starbucks unionized in the United States, with workers winning elections at an 80 percent clip despite the company’s union-busting tactics.

A spokesperson for SBWU argues that other companies are looking at how Starbucks fares with its union-busting tactics as they attempt to potentially stifle their own workers’ organizing efforts.

The NLRB also ordered numerous prohibitions on Starbucks from engaging in further anti-union activities. However, it has done this before in other Starbucks cases in the past three years.

The calls from the NLRB seem to have had little effect on the company’s attempts to stifle unionization. In contrast, Starbucks went so far as to allege last year that the NLRB was working in collusion with SBWU.

Moreover, adverse actions by a company can set back union organizing in a way that remedies years later can’t address.

The Philadelphia case also demonstrates again how Starbucks has engaged in anti-union attacks regardless of the union or the specific workers involved. This is true going back to the late 1980s, when workers voted to decertify the United Food and Commercial Workers union at Starbucks stores under Schultz’s first tenure as CEO.

The now-interim executive has also refused to testify before a Senate committee headed by Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders has hinted that the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions will subpoena Schultz.

Although the recent wave of barista organizing has made inroads in the press, it has not yet impacted the company’s revenues or profits in the United States or elsewhere. However, with a shareholder meeting and a new CEO arriving in in the coming weeks, Starbucks might be more vulnerable in the given moment.

On Tuesday, workers at over 110 stores with the SBWU campaign attempted to enlist customers to support their organizing by asking them to sign a “No Contract, No Coffee” pledge.

Update: Since this article’s publication, a federal judge in Michigan ordered a rehiring of an “unlawfully fired” Starbucks worker and ordered Starbucks to cease and desist from illegal anti-union activities, including but not limited to firings.