Workers denounce Starbucks over union contract negotiations: ‘They don’t treat us like human beings’

Claims of delays, unfair labor practices and retaliation against workers as the battle for a first union contract stalls

Starbucks corporate board meetings reportedly include two empty chairs to represent employees and customers. It is a sort of gimmick aimed at portraying an inclusive company culture.

But recently workers at unionized Starbucks stores have been posting photos of empty chairs at tables set out for talks on a first union contract. They do so as a way of making a very different point: workers have now made multiple complaints about Starbucks attorneys showing up to bargaining sessions and then leaving before any bargaining could begin.

Tyler Keeling, a barista at a Starbucks in Lakewood, California, that won its union election in May 2022, was one of the workers at the first store bargaining sessions in late October 2022, when Starbucks representatives showed up and left immediately over claims they didn’t agree to bargain with some workers attending the sessions via Zoom.

The union and Starbucks filed unfair labor practice charges against one another over the claims.

“At every single one of those stores where that happened, we were lucky if we hit the 10-minute mark before they were gone,” said Keeling. “It’s very clear what they’re doing, which is dragging out bargaining as far as they can to try to demoralize partners.”

Keeling said he and other workers are intent on continuing to organize amid the delays and are encouraging the public to let Starbucks know they disagree with how the company is responding to the union organizing campaign.

“The company cares about their reputation more than they care about almost anything,” he added. “We can show the company that if they had a lot more to lose, from business, reputation, everything like that, they’ll listen, eventually, they’re going to have to.”

Michael Mueller, a barista at a Starbucks store in Cary, Illinois, that unionized in April 2022, expressed similar concerns about how Starbucks has approached bargaining with the union.

“They don’t treat us like human beings. They don’t treat us like equals. They like to call us partners, but they treat us like anything but. They are doing anything in their power to not have to bargain with us,” said Mueller. “That’s me speaking from my own personal experience. I’ve been to bargaining sessions in person, I’ve watched over a half a dozen on Zoom. They don’t want to talk to us.”

Labor law experts have expressed concerns over Starbucks’s tactics and behavior in securing a first union contract, and the inadequacy of current labor law, which is weak, outdated and doesn’t provide adequate support for securing first union contracts.

“What Starbucks is doing is really illustrating what’s wrong with labor law, the fact that they can make a mockery of their duty to bargain in good faith and face minimal penalties, even if they’re found to be violating the law, really demonstrates that the law needs to be strengthened,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “The duty to bargain in good faith is extremely flimsy under current law.”

She cited the need for meaningful fines and punishments for labor law violations, where few exist to legislative efforts that would allow arbitrators to impose a first union contract.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research and a senior lecturer at Cornell’s ILR School, explained that first union contracts often remain elusive for newly formed unions for long periods of time in the face of employer opposition.

Only 33% of unions secure a first contract within the first year after winning a union election, and 44% do not have a first contract within three years.

“The only thing that gets the employer to come to the table and bargain a future contract is the union exerting pressure however it can, to get them to do it, to make the cost of not bargaining greater than the cost of bargaining,” she said.

More than 260 Starbucks stores covering about 7,000 workers have won union elections since December 2021, more new unions formed in any year over the past two decades at any US corporation, according to Workers United.

Workers have held dozens of strikes and protests over working conditions, delayed bargaining and claims of retaliation against workers over the past year. The union organizing campaign has been one of the most expansive and contentious in the US in years.

The union has established a strike fund to provide financial assistance to affected workers during strikes and numerous GoFundMe campaigns have been launched by workers to support employees who have been fired by Starbucks while engaged in union organizing, with Workers United claiming more than 150 union leaders have been fired.

On 4 November, 28 Democratic members of Congress wrote a letter to Starbucks denouncing the company’s strategy of union-busting, intimidation and retaliation. The NLRB’s regional offices have issued at least 48 complaints covering 155 unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks, which will be heard before administrative law judges unless a settlement is reached beforehand.

Starbucks has already lost three administrative law judge hearings, including on claims the company illegally hampered workers’ testimony before the NLRB, and claims of illegally firing workers involved in union activity. Seven Starbucks workers in Memphis, Tennessee, won reinstatement after being fired in January 2021 when Starbucks lost its appeal to the case.

The NLRB has also recently sought an injunction to force Starbucks to reopen a store in Ithaca, New York, which the union alleged was closed in retaliation for the store unionizing and workers striking there. An NLRB regional director is also seeking a court injunction for a nationwide cease and desist order for Starbucks’s retaliation against workers.

Starbucks has denied all allegations of retaliation, including all NLRB regional complaints and administrative judge rulings.

The company has insisted it is bargaining in good faith and have claimed the union is not.

The company has filed 40 unfair labor practice charges against the union, and over 400 unfair labor practice charges have been filed by the union against Starbucks.


Michael Sainato

The GuardianTramp

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