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February 2, 2022 | Employment LawFrom the blog

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

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For almost a century, labor unions have provided employees a vital mouthpiece to arrange fair employment terms for workers.  Currently, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) supervises the formation and enforcement of union rights.  Notably, the NLRB is overseeing the recent effort by Starbucks employees to unionize in Buffalo and Seattle.  Within the past few months, in each city, Starbucks workers have successfully voted to have a union represent them in labor negotiations.

The Birth of the NLRB

In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) in response to certain controversial private sector labor and management practices.  The NLRA was considered a major step in protecting the rights of employees and employers, particularly the right to collectively bargain.  Accordingly, employees now have the right to organize a union to negotiate with their employer collectively, including the right to distribute union literature and solicit colleagues to join said union.   Further, supervisors and managers could no longer spy on, threaten, bribe, or coercively question workers interested in unionizing; nor could employers demote, discipline, or terminate those considering unionization.

Unionization at Starbucks

For some, the unionization effort by Starbucks’ employees may be surprising.  In fact, Howard Schultz, the longtime CEO of Starbucks, sought to create a low wage position that could circumvent the need for unions.  He wanted to innovate these jobs by creating “a middle-ground…that eclipsed service-industry mores by giving its hourly employees stock benefits, tuition reimbursement, and healthcare.”  It’s evident that Mr. Schultz may have provided such benefits to avoid dealing with union logistics.  Despite the above market benefits offered, Starbucks employees have consistently sought union representation. 

Historical Unionization Efforts

The latest unionization endeavor is not the first Starbucks has encountered.  Prior to Schultz’s purchase of the company in the 1980s, the Seattle Starbucks workers had already negotiated benefits, paid vacation, and sick time through the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.  By 1993, the NLRB decertified this union, however, through a rare petition by Starbucks’ management.  In fact, the then local United Food and Commercial Workers Union representative, Dave Schmitz, claims that in “30 years on staff at the union, it was the only management petition we ever saw to decertify a union.”

In 2007, Starbucks’ efforts to stop workers at four Manhattan stores from unionizing led the National Labor Relations Board to charge Starbucks with 30 violations of labor law.  These charges included claims of “firing pro-union employees and threatening to fire other workers if they supported the union.”  Prior to the current push for unionization, the only Starbucks workers with union cards were those that are, in actuality, Safeway and Fred Mayer employees that just happen to work at the grocers’ in-store Starbucks. 

Current Unionization Effort

The ongoing unionization effort in Buffalo was partially spurred by difficulties exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Such difficulties included insufficient COVID safeguards and related understaffing.  Further, although the company offered better benefits than some of its competitors, many employees did not feel they could easily, if at all, access them.  In December 2021, a single Buffalo, NY store voted to unionize, in order to obtain collective bargaining power against Starbucks.  Now, Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, will represent this store’s workers.  Further, Workers United filed formal objections against two other Starbucks store elections claiming that Starbucks engaged in a “shock and awe” campaign to convince workers to vote against unionization.  This included allegations that ineligible employees cast six of the votes during the Cheektowaga, NY store election.  As of January 10, 2022, the Cheektowaga store has now voted in favor of unionization.

After the first Buffalo store’s union certification, three other Buffalo stores, a Seattle store and a Mesa, Arizona store all sought a vote to unionize.  For months, Starbucks has led aggressive anti-union campaigns, particularly in the Seattle area, including visits from Mr. Schultz, compulsory anti-union meetings and temporary closure of unionizing stores.  In opposition, Seattle councilwoman Kshama Sawant has introduced a resolution in her district condemning Starbucks’ attempt to destroy union drive and in support of nationwide Starbucks unionization efforts.  Clearly, this is just the beginning of a broader national movement. 

Process for Union Certification

Although isolated unionization efforts are headline news, it’s important to understand the actual process by which the NLRB certifies unions.  There are two different methods by which workers can obtain union representation.

The first method is by NLRB election.  To start, thirty percent of the given business’ employees must sign union cards or a petition advocating for unionization.  Reaching this threshold triggers an election, which the NLRB will oversee, to determine whether the selected union will represent the employees in negotiations with the business.  If a majority of employees vote in favor of unionization, then the NLRB will certify the designated union as the representative for the employees.  At that point, the employer must begin bargaining with a union representative over terms and conditions of employment.  Starbucks’ employees nationwide have begun to use this method to have Workers United certified as their union.

Elections are not the only procedure by which employees can receive union representation.  In fact, employers can voluntarily recognize a union so long as there is evidence showing that employees want union representation such as signed union cards.  This method completely circumvents the NLRB union certification process.  Voluntary union negotiation, however, is unlikely to occur in this situation as Starbucks, for years, has aggressively fought unionization efforts. 

Business Environments that May Cause Unionization

Many of the publicized Starbucks employee sentiments can inform us as to general conditions that lead to unionization.  Simply put, a Buffalo Starbucks employee expressed that “corporate decisions don’t align with the day-to-day struggles of what we face.”  Starbucks’ perspective is that “the company encourages employees to discuss what’s on their mind at weekly listening sessions, from wages and COVID-19 safety protocols to work-life balance and works to respond to them.”  Regardless of opinion, a union can create a powerful, conglomerative voice for isolated employees.  If a company wants to avoid protracted negotiations with such an entity it should ensure that it actively listens and incorporates employee feedback.

Poor communication between employer and employee expectations can lead to unionization.  Companies that over promise and under deliver can easily lose their employees’ trust.  Such promises usually directly involve compensation or upward movement within the company.  Depending on the company’s size, these promises may not even come from officers or directors of the company.  Accordingly, companies should be clear when presenting expectations for both job requirements, opportunities for advancement in compensation and position within the company and what milestones employees must meet to access those opportunities.

The surrounding market can also spark employee interest in unionizing.  If employees notice that their peers at other companies are receiving higher compensation or better job benefits, they may feel as though the company does not value them.  This includes benefits, like childcare and parental leave policies that might not affect every employee.  Further, if the employer refuses to engage in reasonable discussions about improved compensation or benefits, employees may seek a union to advocate for them.

Unequal treatment amongst workers may instigate employees to seek union representation.  For example, individuals from protected classes who feel discriminated against can seek collective action, via a union, to ensure equal treatment by the company.  This is particularly relevant to pay gaps based on gender, which have larger constituencies that could, depending on the composition of the company, more easily win a vote for class certification.

Overall, employees looking to unionize usually identify a disconnect with higher-ups and do not feel heard.  Companies seeking to avoid unionization should actively listen and incorporate a breadth of employee feedback into their corporate goals and ideals.  In turn, employees seeking change in their workplace should seek like-minded peers and document attempts to discuss company shortcomings with their supervisors.  Contact an experienced employment attorney for guidance on your employment matters.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

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