In a scathing 204-page decision, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge determined that Starbucks higher-ups committed scores of National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) violations in an attempt to squelch union activity at the world’s largest coffeehouse retailer.
The decision orders significant relief, including the reinstatement of fired workers and a requirement that Starbucks bargain with a union.
In 2021, employees at Buffalo-area Starbucks locations began planning a union organizing drive.
Starbucks union activity
In connection with that effort, they created a labor organization called Workers United and posted (on Twitter) a letter to Kevin Johnson, who at the time was Starbucks’ president and chief executive officer.
The letter informed Johnson of the union organizing efforts and asked him to agree to “Fair Election Principles.” It was signed by 49 baristas and shift supervisors.
Employees at numerous stores began soliciting and signing authorization cards, and Workers United filed petitions for elections at three stores.
Almost immediately after the letter was posted, the decision says, Starbucks “blitzed the Buffalo market with an extraordinary number of corporate officials, managers and others.”
Management teams respond
Responding management teams included some company bigwigs, such as the then-executive vice president of Starbucks North America, a regional vice president and a regional director.
They spent hours in the company’s 21 Buffalo-area stores, where they met with managers and other employees, elicited grievances and suggestions, ordered improvements, and scheduled election-related meetings called “listening sessions” in stores and hotel conference rooms.
Employees complained about understaffing, hiring, training and issues related to facilities and equipment.
In early September of 2021, Starbucks told its Buffalo-area store managers that if union organizers came into a store and asked employees to sign union authorization cards, they were to tell the organizers that they were not to do so while employees were working.
Managers also encouraged employees to vote against the union.
Over the following months, Starbucks took several actions that the NLRB determined to be in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
In a March 1 decision, an NLRB judge determined that Starbucks had engaged in “egregious and widespread misconduct demonstrating a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights.”
In particular, the decision described 46 separate actions that, taken by Starbucks in response to union activity, violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA. Those actions included:
- Photographing employees engaged in union activity.
- Assigning more store managers to at least create the impression that union activities were under surveillance.
- Banning employees from talking about wages.
- Monitoring employee conversations on company headsets.
- Threatening employees with the withholding of new benefits.
- Threatening employees with discipline for engaging in protected concerted activity.
- Instructing employees to report other employees’ union activities.
- Soliciting complaints and grievances from employees.
- Promising to renovate stores, and
- Promising increased benefits.
Starbucks also violated Section 8(a)(3) and (1) of the NLRA, the decision added, by engaging in specific conduct in response to union activity. It did so in 45 ways, the decision said, including by:
- More strictly enforcing its dress code and personal appearance policy.
- More strictly enforcing its attendance and punctuality policy.
- More strictly enforcing its policy regarding the solicitation and distribution of notices.
- Disparately enforcing its policy regarding free food and beverages for employees.
- Reducing store hours.
- Temporarily closing stores.
- Reducing employees’ work hours.
- Disciplining employees.
- Firing employees, and
- Refusing to allow union supporters to train new employees.
The decision also found that Starbucks violated Section 8(a)(4) and (1) of the NLRA by disciplining and discharging an employee because she provided testimony to the NLRB.
Starbucks further violated the act by refusing to recognize and bargain with the union, the decision added.
Relief is ordered
As relief, the decision ordered Starbucks to:
- Reinstate the terminated workers, and make those workers whole for any loss of earnings and other benefits.
- Make whole other employees who were affected by unlawful unilateral changes in the terms and conditions of their employment.
- Bargain in good faith with the union on request.
- Stop infringing employees’ NLRA rights.
- Provide ongoing training to employees, and
- Post a notice regarding the case to employees.