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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Starbucks union campaign pushes on, with at least 16 stores organized

Pro-union pins were available during a watch party for a Starbucks union election in Buffalo in December.

By Noam Scheiber

Starbucks workers have added to the momentum of a union campaign that went public in late August and has upended decades of union-free labor at the company’s corporate-owned stores.

Late last week, workers at six stores in upstate New York voted to unionize, according to the National Labor Relations Board, bringing the total number of company-owned stores where workers have backed a union to 16. The union, Workers United, was also leading by a wide margin in votes tallied Friday at a store in Kansas, but the number of challenged ballots leaves the outcome in doubt until their status can be resolved.

The union has lost only one election, but it is formally challenging the outcome.

Since the union secured its first two victories in elections that concluded in December, workers at more than 175 other stores across at least 25 states have filed for union elections, out of roughly 9,000 corporate-owned stores in the United States. The labor board will count ballots in at least three more stores next week.

The organizing success at Starbucks appears to reflect a growing interest among workers in unionizing, including the efforts at Amazon, where workers last week voted to unionize a Staten Island warehouse by a significant margin.

On Wednesday, the general counsel of the NLRB, Jennifer Abruzzo, said union election filings were up more than 50% during the previous six months versus the same period one year earlier. Abruzzo expressed concern that funding and staff shortages were making it difficult for the agency to keep up with the activity, saying in a statement that the board “needs a significant increase of funds to fully effectuate the mission of the agency.”

Starbucks has sought to persuade workers not to unionize by holding anti-union meetings with workers and conversations between managers and individual employees, but some employees say the meetings have only galvanized their support for organizing.

In some cases, Starbucks has also sent a number of senior officials to stores from out of town, a move the company says is intended to address operational issues like staffing and training but which some union supporters have said they find intimidating.

The union has accused Starbucks of seeking to cut back hours nationally as a way to encourage longtime employees to leave the company and replace them with workers who are more skeptical about unionizing. And the union argues that Starbucks has retaliated against workers for supporting the union by disciplining or firing them. Last month, the NLRB issued a formal complaint against Starbucks for retaliating against two Arizona employees, a step it takes after finding merit in accusations against employers or unions.

The company has denied that it has cut hours to prompt employees to leave, saying it schedules workers in response to customer demand, and it has rejected accusations of anti-union activity.

As the union campaign accelerated in March, Starbucks announced that Kevin Johnson, who had served as CEO since 2017, would be replaced on an interim basis by Howard Schultz, who had led the company twice before and remains one of its largest investors.

Some investors who had warned Johnson that the company’s anti-union tactics could damage its reputation expressed optimism that the leadership change might bring about a shift in Starbucks’ posture toward the union. But the company soon announced that it would not agree to stay neutral in union elections, as the union has requested, dampening those hopes.

On Monday, the day that Schultz returned as CEO, Starbucks fired Laila Dalton, one of the two Arizona workers whom the NLRB had accused Starbucks of retaliating against in March. The company said Dalton had violated company rules by recording co-workers’ conversations without their permission.

“A partner’s interest in a union does not exempt them from the standards we have always held,” Reggie Borges, a company spokesperson, said in a statement, using the company’s term for an employee.

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