Starbucks employee was fired illegally, labor board judge rules

The coffee giant will be required to reinstate Hannah Whitbeck’s job and to hold a meeting reasserting that the company broke the law

Starbucks illegally fired an employee at one of the coffee giant’s shops in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for engaging in union activism, a National Labor Relations Board judge ruled on Friday.

The decision requires Starbucks to offer the worker reinstatement with back pay and to hold a meeting with employees, management, government representatives and the union to clarify workers’ rights and reassert the board’s finding that the company broke the law.

“I would hope that they learn their lesson, that firing people because they want to start a union is not going to solve their problems,” the fired employee, Hannah Whitbeck, told Bloomberg in an interview. “In fact, it’s only going to make it worse.”

The ruling comes amid a series of disputes between the coffee chain and Workers United, a labor group organizing for unionization at Starbucks stores across the country. Starbucks has said that claims of anti-union activity by the company are “categorically false” and has denied wrongdoing in Whitbeck’s case.

In Friday’s ruling, according to Bloomberg, the NLRB judge wrote that the board’s general counsel had demonstrated that Starbucks “acted with animus” when it fired the employee, who had participated in efforts to unionize the store in question. Starbucks has not indicated if it plans to appeal.

The union representing employees, Starbucks Workers United, has accused the company of firing more than 80 employees because of their activism. The Starbucks union has racked up 220 election wins out of roughly 9,000 corporate-owned US stores in the past year.

Starbucks store employees – or “partners” – who are supportive of the unionization drive have said they are underpaid, undertrained and poorly treated. Those claims have been largely rejected by the company.

“From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we do not want a union between us and partners, and that conviction has not changed,” Starbucks’ executive vice-president Rossann Williams said in a statement last year. “Our hope is that union representatives also come to the table with mutual good faith, respect and positive intent.”

Separately, the NLRB said last week that union representation petitions increased 53% in fiscal year 2022 when compared with 2021 – the highest number since 2016.

The board said that employees are turning to established and independent unions in an effort to address a range of workplace issues, including wages, benefits and concerns relating to pandemic health and safety.

“Given the spike in case intake we are seeing in the field, we can expect even more cases to come before the board in fiscal year 2023,” the NLRB chairperson, Lauren McFerran, said in a statement.

The NLRB said that 2,510 union petitions were filed in the fiscal year to September, up from 1,638 over the same period a year earlier. Unfair labor practice charges filed with NLRB field offices increased 19%, the agency added.

Although unionization efforts at Starbucks and Amazon have received the most public attention, a number of worker drives from other, sometimes unexpected, quarters have joined them.

In a memo on Thursday, the NRLB said that 30 dancers at a topless bar in Hollywood, California, would vote next month on whether to join the Actors Equity Association, a union that represents 51,000 professional actors and stage managers.

Dancers at the Star Garden Topless Dive Bar have picketed for months for better workplace conditions including higher wages, access to benefits, better security and safer stages.

If a majority of the dancers vote to unionize, they will become the only organized group of strippers in the United States. Previously, strippers at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady organized under the Exotic Dancers Union in 1996. The Lusty Lady closed in 2013.


Edward Helmore

The GuardianTramp

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