Starbucks faces sweeping government complaint for anti-union campaign

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The US government’s labour board filed a wide-ranging complaint against Starbucks management for dozens of alleged violations of federal labour laws, including firing workers trying to unionise and closing stores in retaliation for supporting the union campaign.

A sweeping complaint issued by a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board in Buffalo, New York on 6 May follows a high-profile union effort among Starbucks workers at the coffee giant’s corporate-run stores across the US, which has been met with significant opposition from company leadership.

More than 200 stores have filed a petition for union elections, and pro-union workers in at least 50 stores have won elections to unionise their workplace, including flagship stores in New York City and in Seattle, the company’s hometown.

The 45-page complaint encompassing stores in the Buffalo area – where the campaign first started – alleges a pattern of violations among Starbucks management in retaliation for workers’ union support, including firing six workers, promising benefits to workers who opposed the union, surveilling conversations and interrogating workers about the union, inconsistent enforcement of store policies, and closing stores altogether, among other allegations.

The complaint is the result of dozens of allegations of unfair labour practices filed by union organisers since November 2021, which the NLRB now recognises as “valid and correct”, according to Starbucks Workers United attorney Ian Hayes.

It is “vindication for everybody who works for Starbucks and anybody who has watched this campaign,” he said during a press briefing on Friday.

A spokesperson for Starbucks told The Independent that it believes the allegations are false.

“This news is good, but we had to endure so much to get here, especially the partners like me who were terminated,” said Cassie Fleischer, among Buffalo-area Starbucks workers who were fired through the course of the union campaign. “I am so ecstatic to hear the NLRB is on our side and I’m confident I will get my job back [through] this process.”

The complaint – among the largest-ever for the region – names hundreds of Starbucks managers who were sent by the company during the union campaign.

Starbucks must reinstate and pay fired workers, reopen closed stores, host mandatory training on workers rights, and provide notice to all Starbucks workers that the company violated the law, according to the complaint’s demands for relief.

CEO Howard Schultz and executive vice president Rossann Williams also must record themselves reading the notice and distribute the recording to all Starbucks workers, the complaint says.

“This rips away the progressive image of this company,” said union organiser Richard Bensinger. “They’re exposed as a … brutal, lawless corporation that seems to care fanatically about busting a union.”

Starbucks workers have filed for union elections at dozens of stores across the US. At least 50 stores have voted to unionise.

(AFP via Getty Images)

A statement from Starbucks to The Independent says the complaint “involves important issues”.

“However, Starbucks does not agree that the claims have merit, and the complaint’s issuance does not constitute a finding by the NLRB,” according to a spokesperson. “It is the beginning of a litigation process that permits both sides to be heard and to present evidence. We believe the allegations contained in the complaint are false, and we look forward to presenting our evidence when the allegations are adjudicated.”

Mr Schultz, who recently replaced Kevin Johnson after spending 13 years leading the company, told a company town hall on 4 April that “we can’t ignore what is happening in the country as it relates to companies throughout the country being assaulted in many ways by the threat of unionisation”.

During a recent call with managers, Mr Schultz also condemned an “outside force that’s desperately trying to disrupt our company”.

After union workers and organisers from Amazon and Starbucks joined a White House meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh on 5 May, Starbucks executive AJ Jones II wrote to White House counselor Steve Ricchetti expressing the company’s disappointment over the meeting.

“We believe this lack of representation discounts the reality that the majority of our partners oppose being members of a union and the unionization tactics being deployed by Workers United,” Mr Jones wrote.

A hearing date has been set for 22 July.

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