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October 13, 2023 | Employment

Freshly Brewed: Starbucks Employees Put A “Latte” Effort Into Unionization

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Jari Wilson

Associate Attorney

For nearly a century, labor unions have played a crucial role in advocating for fair employment conditions for workers.  The formation and enforcement of union rights are generally overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”), which is actively involved in the recent unionization efforts by Starbucks employees across the country.  These efforts originally started in Buffalo in 2021.  Currently, over 8,000 Starbucks workers have successfully voted to have a union represent them in labor negotiations, marking a significant development in the ongoing labor movement.

The Origin of the NLRB

In 1935, Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) in response to controversial labor and management practices in the private sector.  The NLRA was considered landmark legislation, as it safeguarded the rights of both employees and employers.  In particular, it provided employees with the right to collective bargaining.  Under the NLRA, employees gained the right to organize a union for collective negotiation with their employer, distribute union literature, and invite colleagues to join the union.  The statute also prohibits employers from intimidating or coercing workers interested in unionizing and prevents retaliatory actions such as demotion or termination against employees considering unionization.

Starbucks and Unionization

The recent unionization efforts at Starbucks might surprise some, given the company’s attempts to avoid unionization.  Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sought to create jobs that provide benefits like stock options, tuition reimbursement, and healthcare as a way to create a competitive and compelling job opportunity and potentially avoid dealing with unions.  Despite these job benefits, Starbucks employees have consistently sought union representation.

Starbucks Employees and Their History of Unionization Efforts

Starbucks employees have attempted to unionize in the past.  Before Schultz bought the company, Seattle Starbucks workers had negotiated benefits and paid time off through the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.  However, in an unusual move, the NLRB decertified this union in 1993, due at least in part to a petition from Starbucks management.

In 2007, Starbucks was charged by the NLRB with thirty labor law violations based on the company’s efforts to stop workers from unionizing in Manhattan stores.  Before the recent unionization efforts, the only Starbucks employees who were considered union members were those who worked at the Starbucks locations that were in grocery stores.

Current Unionization Efforts

The most recent Starbucks unionization effort began in 2021 and was partially strengthened by the difficulties Starbucks workers endured because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  These difficulties included alleged inadequate safety measures and understaffing.

As of now, over 8,000 Starbucks workers have voted to unionize in over 360 Starbucks locations across the country.  While no collective bargaining agreement has been created from these unionization efforts, the movement has been strong enough for Starbucks to act.  The company offered its non-union employees wage increases along with additional job benefits, such as credit card tipping, but did not offer these benefits to union employees.  This led to the NLRB’s recent finding that Starbucks has yet again violated labor law in its attempts to stop union activity.

Union Certification Process

Although not every Starbucks store has chosen to unionize, there are two different routes that workers can utilize to obtain union representation and NLRB union certification.

One way union representation can be obtained is through an NLRB election.  To trigger an election, thirty percent of a business’s employees must sign union cards or a petition in support of unionization.  The NLRB then oversees an election to decide whether the selected union is allowed to represent the employees in business negotiations with the employer.  If a majority of the employees vote in favor of unionization, then the union is certified by the NLRB.  Once the union is certified, the employer can only negotiate with the union representative.  Many Starbucks employees have chosen the NLRB election route and have voted to have the Workers Union certified as their union.

The other way for union representation to be obtained is having the employer voluntarily recognize the union.  A union can be voluntarily recognized by an employer as long as there is evidence showing the employees would like union representation.  Evidence of wanting union representation can include employees having signed union cards.  This method does not require the NLRB to certify the union.  However, it seems unlikely that Starbucks will voluntarily recognize an employee union, as it has previously fought and continues to fight against unionization efforts.

Factors Encouraging Unionization

Several factors can lead to employees being interested in unionization, including poor communication between an employer and employees, unfulfilled promises regarding compensation or career advancement, market disparities in compensation and benefits, and unequal treatment among workers, especially concerning protected classes.  Employees often seek union representation when they feel unheard and disconnected from management.


Overall, the ongoing unionization efforts at Starbucks showcase the importance of effective communication and understanding between employers and employees.  Companies seeking to avoid unionization must actively listen to employee concerns, address grievances, and incorporate feedback into their corporate strategies.  Similarly, employees seeking workplace changes should unite with their peers, document concerns, and engage in constructive dialogue with supervisors.  Consulting an experienced employment attorney can provide valuable guidance in navigating employment matters when faced with union-related issues.


Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
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