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Starbucks strategy for responding to union elections is dealt a setback


The Starbucks Workers United headquarters in Buffalo, N.Y., Oct. 13, 2021. The National Labor Relations Board dealt a blow to Starbucks’s legal strategy in response to a growing union campaign on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, rejecting the company’s argument that workers seeking to unionize in a geographic area must vote in a single union election.

By Noam Scheiber


The National Labor Relations Board dealt a blow to Starbucks’ legal strategy in response to a growing union campaign earlier this week, rejecting the company’s argument that workers seeking to unionize in a geographic area must vote in a single union election.


In a ruling involving an election in Mesa, Arizona, the board noted the long-standing presumption that a single store is an appropriate unit for a vote — as union supporters have insisted.


Starbucks workers at more than 100 stores nationwide have filed for union elections, and workers at two stores in Buffalo, New York, have already unionized.


Unions typically prefer smaller elections, which tend to increase their chances of winning, albeit on a smaller scale. Workers United, the union seeking to represent Starbucks employees, has complained that Starbucks has repeatedly resisted store-by-store elections despite gaining little traction on the issue as a way to delay votes and stop the union’s momentum.


Starbucks has argued that the elections should be marketwide because employees can work at multiple locations and because the stores in a market are managed as a relatively cohesive unit. It has made this case in its requests to appeal labor board decisions ordering elections on a store-by-store basis in Buffalo and Mesa, and in other filings related to union elections around the country.


Before Wednesday’s ruling, the board had been unmoved by the company’s argument in Buffalo as well. But unlike the request for an appeal in Buffalo, which the board rejected on an ad hoc basis, the action in the Arizona case sets a binding precedent and will most likely make it more difficult for Starbucks to successfully raise such objections in the future.


Nonetheless, the company indicated it would still press the issue. “Our position since the beginning has been that all partners in a market or district deserve the right to vote on a decision that will impact them,” Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesperson, said in a statement, using the company’s term for its employees. “We will continue to respect the NLRB’s process and advocate for our partners’ ability to make their voices heard.”


Workers in Mesa and at three Buffalo-area locations have voted in store-by-store elections, but the board postponed those vote counts while resolving Starbucks’ appeals. In the short term, the board decision means that a vote count at a Starbucks store in Mesa can go forward after being postponed last week.


In a statement Wednesday, the union criticized both Starbucks and the labor board for the delays in counting ballots. “Partners are confident in our ability to stand strong, but justice delayed is justice denied, and we will continue to push for our right to organize without delay,” the statement said.

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