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The case combined 33 labor violations and union busting complaints from 21 separate stores in the Buffalo area, which was the birthplace of the Starbucks unionization movement beginning in fall 2021.

Buffalo Judge says Starbucks committed ‘egregious and widespread’ labor law violations

A federal judge ordered that Starbucks must reinstate fired Buffalo employees with backpay, reopen a closed Buffalo store, and post a notice of violations to stores nationally

In a landmark win for unionized Starbucks workers, a federal administrative law judge in Buffalo ruled in a 220-page order released on Wednesday that Starbucks had committed “egregious and widespread” labor law violations and a “general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights.”

The case combined 33 labor violations and union busting complaints from 21 separate stores in the Buffalo area, which was the birthplace of the Starbucks unionization movement beginning in fall 2021. Since Dec. 2021, 268 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize, and there has been a legal tug of war between Starbucks and its growing union, whose members have complained of union busting tactics, ever since.

In the sweeping ruling on Wednesday, Judge Michael A. Rosas ruled that Starbucks is required to:

  • Reinstate seven unfairly fired workers and expunge references to their termination from their records
  • Reopen a closed Buffalo-area store that was shuttered during the unionization process
  • Rescind verbal and written warnings from the records of another nine employees
  • Compensate an additional 27 workers for “consequential harm” caused by their parent company’s actions, including cutting hours and withholding promotions in alleged retaliation for unionization activity
  • Bargain with three Buffalo-area unionized Starbucks stores
  • Have interim CEO Howard Schultz or senior vice president of U.S. operations Denise Nelson read a notice to employees explaining the labor violations and their legal rights as employees in person or in a recorded video
  • Require Starbucks to post the 13 pages of labor violations in this case to its stores nationally throughout the duration of the labor organization campaign, and post that same notice on all digital platforms of communication, including email, text, and employee online platforms

"The news of this win is single handedly the most exciting thing that's happened in this campaign thus far,” Michael Sanabria, a barista from the Transit Commons location in Buffalo, NY said in a statement released by SBWorkers United. “Having to reinstate all of these workers, reopen the first Starbucks location closed in the name of union-busting, and most importantly, post notices in every single store across the country for the duration of the Starbucks organizing campaign is such a massive win for us, and for the labor movement as a whole.”

Additionally, Judge Rosas ordered Starbucks to cease and desist from actions of union-busting interference in the labor organization process with a wide range of restricted activities and retaliations including, among others:

  • Promising employees increased benefits if they agree to not unionize
  • Surveilling employees wearing union support insignia
  • Having high-ranking officials make “unprecedented and repeated visits to each store” that is in the process of voting on a union
  • Prohibiting employees from talking about wages
  • Restricting union literature
  • Placing newly hired employees in stores with an upcoming union vote for the purpose of disrupting that vote
  • Threatening employees with loss of benefits or pay increases if they choose to unionize
  • Strictly enforcing rules that it chose not to enforce prior to the filing of a union petition
  • Refusing to recognize and bargain with unionized workers and stores

“We believe the decision and the remedies ordered are inappropriate given the record in this matter and are considering all options to obtain further legal review," Starbucks said in a statement sent to media. 

In this consolidated Buffalo case, as in the other legal battles between Starbucks and SBWorkers United/the National Labor Relations Board, Starbucks has maintained that these workers were not penalized or terminated for supporting or voting for a union, but rather for violating company policies. For example, one employee at a Buffalo area store was terminated for cursing, when before the unionization activity began, no one had ever been fired before for using vulgar language, and that rule had not been enforced.

“Once again, the evidence established that the Respondent’s actions were driven by discriminatory 25 motivation to eliminate yet another union supporter,” Judge Rosas said in his ruling. “Its widespread coercive behavior over six months had permeated every store in the Buffalo market.”

This ruling was issued one week before Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is holding a vote to subpoena Starbucks interim CEO Howard Schultz before the United States Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to address claims of union busting. Schultz has previously declined to appear before the committee and has maintained that it is not violating any federal labor laws.

Contact Joanna at [email protected]

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