Will Starbucks’ union-busting stifle a union rebirth in the US?

 In Business

The NLRB has brought 100 cases against the coffee chain over anti-union activities – but it cannot punish the company

A large crowd outside a Starbucks location with one person holding a sign saying 'Starbucks customer for a Starbucks union'.

Union supporters gather outside a Starbucks location in Buffalo, New York, on 12 October 2022. Photograph: Lindsay Dedario/Reuters

With more than 340 victories at Starbucks stores across the US, the campaign to organize the coffee chain’s workers is one of the most successful union drives in a generation. But Starbucks’ fierce union-busting campaign has badly slowed its momentum and exposed deep flaws in US labor law that threaten other promising unionization efforts.

Two years on since workers at a Buffalo Starbucks started the first successful campaign to form a union at a company-run store, labor experts say the coffee chain’s aggressive union-busting is shining a harsh light on the shortcomings of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and how that 88-year-old law which governs unionization campaigns is proving far too weak to stop a powerful, multibillion corporation from using an arsenal of illegal tactics to stifle a highly promising union drive.

Many labor experts say the unionization campaign at Starbucks has done more than any other effort to inspire union drives, whether at Trader Joe’s, Apple or elsewhere, but if Starbucks succeeds in quashing its baristas’ organizing efforts and prevents them from ever getting a first contract, that would be a major symbolic and substantive blow to the hopes for a union rebirth in the US.

Even strong union supporters admit that Starbucks’ “union avoidance” tactics have severely cut into the union’s momentum and win rate.

“Starbucks has figured out an ingenious plan to get around labor law, which is: break so many labor laws so fast that the National Labor Relations Board simply can’t keep up in enforcing the law,” said Jaz Brisack, a fired barista who worked at the first company-run Starbucks – the Elmwood Avenue store in Buffalo – where workers voted in favor of unionizing.

The regional offices of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have brought 100 separate cases against Starbucks – an extraordinarily high number – which together allege more than 1,000 illegal actions, many of them in retaliation against workers for unionizing: from closing stores because they had unionized to reducing workers’ hours after their stores unionized. The NLRB has also filed an unusual nationwide complaint accusing Starbucks of refusing to bargain at 163 unionized stores across 28 states.

All told, rulings by various judges and the five-person labor board have ordered reinstatement of 28 Starbucks workers they found to have been illegally fired in retaliation for union activity. Dozens more pro-union baristas are awaiting rulings about whether they, too, were fired illegally – the NLRA prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for backing a union. Their union, Starbucks Workers United, asserts that nearly 200 workers have been fired in retaliation for union activity.

Logan said the NLRA aims to let workers freely choose whether they want a union to represent them. “The problem,” he said, “is companies like Starbucks have turned it into a choice by the companies, not by the workers.”

When Starbucks’ former CEO, Howard Schultz, testified before a Senate committee in March, he asserted that the company had not broken the law even once in battling against the union. Starbucks continues to maintain that position, asserting that any pro-union worker who was fired was not dismissed for union activity, but for violating company rules, such as arriving late to work.

Man holds a Starbucks mug while testifying before a Senate committee.

Howard Schultz testifies about the company’s compliance with labor law before a Senate committee in March. Photograph: Julia Nikhinson/Reuters

Labor leaders often complain that the NLRA’s weaknesses give a bright green light to anti-union companies to break the law. The NLRA doesn’t allow for any fines, not even one dollar, if a company is found to have, for instance, illegally fired the four workers leading a union drive. Nor can a company be fined for closing a store or operation in retaliation for its workers unionizing. When the NLRB rules that a company broke the law by refusing to bargain, it can’t order the company to reach a first contract. All it can do is order the company to return to the bargaining table, but when that happens, many companies resume doing everything they can to avoid ever reaching a first contract. Even though the first Starbucks store unionized 20 months ago, the company hasn’t reached a contract with workers at any of its 340-plus unionized stores.

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