As Buffalo and Hamburg, N.Y.-area Starbucks employees edge closer to voting on what would be the company's first union in the United States, the coffee chain is being accused of union busting by union organization group, SBWorkers United.
SBWorkers United tweeted out a letter Tuesday that was originally sent to Starbucks employees by Rossann Williams, president of Starbucks North America, that highly encouraged employees to vote no on unionizing:
“Unfortunately, what I’ve seen and heard in the market shows we have partners who don’t feel the partnership we pride ourselves on having, which is heartbreaking to me,” Williams said in the letter distributed to Starbucks employees via the company’s Partner Hub app. “[…] The operational challenges like staffing, training, callouts or repairing equipment can only be solved by us, from within Starbucks. […] So, we are asking partners to vote no to a union—not because we’re opposed to unions but because we believe we will best enhance our partnership and advance the operational changes together in a direct partnership.”
Starbucks did not respond to requests for comment on the letter distributed to their employees on Tuesday.
Employees at all 8,000 company-owned stores have never been formally unionized in the long-term, and previous attempts to organize have often resulted in illegal terminations and subsequent lawsuits.
SBWorkers United began gaining steam as a labor union movement in late August, announcing an organizing committee on Aug. 23 in a formal letter of intent sent to CEO Kevin Johnson.
Originally, five Starbucks locations in the Buffalo/Hamburg area filed for petition to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board. Since then, two out of the five stores that originally were interested in unionizing have dropped out of the vote, according to Vice News. Starbucks said in the subsequent hearings that they believe all Starbucks workers in the Buffalo region should vote on unionization, regardless of if they were part of the original organization efforts.
A date for the union vote has not yet been set by the National Labor Relations Board.
Two of the stores involved in the union vote have recently temporarily closed, one for a remodel and one for hiring new workers, Vice News reported on Oct 13. Although these types of closures are not unusual for major chains, SBWorkers United say that these are one of the most common tactics corporations take when trying to clamp down on union organizing activities. Starbucks has also hired anti-union law firm Littler Mendelsohn to represent them during these proceedings.
Starbucks baristas at the affected stores have reported new out-of-state managers flocking to their stores, as well as visits from executives, including Rossann Williams The New York Times reported. In response to concerns of added staffing and temporary closures, and comparisons to union busting, Starbucks has said that the company’s purpose for these activities is simply to address staffing and training challenges.
“The listening sessions led to requests from partners that resulted in those actions,” Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges told The New York Times. “It’s not a decision where our leadership came in and said, ‘We’re going to do this and this.’ We listened, heard their concerns.”
But former labor board officials are not convinced that the two events are unrelated.
“You could say it’s part of an overall series of events that seems to create a tendency that people would be chilled or inhibited,” Wilma B. Liebman, a former labor board official for the Obama administration said in response to speculations of anti-union activities.
The New York Times also acquired a video of a meeting from September where a Starbucks Arizona district manager told her coworkers that she was asked by corporate to spend time in Buffalo over the next 90 days with the purpose of “saving” the union vote.
According to rules set by the National Labor Relations Board, companies of employees trying to unionize are not allowed to “spy on you (or make it appear that they are doing so), coercively question you, threaten you or bribe you regarding your union activity” and voting is supposed to take place “under laboratory conditions” without outside influence.
The National Labor Relations Board did not respond in time to request for comment on Starbucks’ specific activities seemingly in response to the upcoming union vote.
“Our goal is — as our slogan, ‘Partners Becoming Partners,’ states — to have a voice and an equal partnership with Starbucks management,” Alexis Rizzo, a representative with SBWorkers United, previously told Nation’s Restaurant News. “We are pro-Starbucks and pro-union. In fact, we are Starbucks, and our union, we believe, better represents the value of this company than Kevin Johnson's anti-unionism.”
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