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Starbucks’ union battle comes home with labor law hearing

Starbucks Seattle Union Vote
Joshua Bessex/AP
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FR171816 AP
Pro-union pins sit on a table during a watch party for Starbucks' employees union election, Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y.

Coffee chain giant Starbucks is facing a National Labor Relations Board judge this week over allegations that it broke labor laws when it offered higher wages and other benefits exclusively to non-unionized workers, effectively dissuading workers at other stores from unionizing.

In a federal building in downtown Seattle, attorneys for Starbucks and workers gathered on Tuesday to present opening arguments.

Starbucks has approximately 9,000 company-owned stores – nearly 250 stores have unionized so far. The first store to unionize – at the end of 2021 – is located in Buffalo, N.Y. Since then, dozens of other stores have followed suit, including nine in Seattle, where Starbucks' headquarters is located.

Attorneys representing Starbucks workers laid out a long list of benefits they said union employees have unfairly missed out on, including increased training, updated dress code policies and faster sick time accrual.

Starbucks also created a savings plan for non-unionized, hourly employees, offering those who save money from their paycheck a $50 per month and an extra $25 per quarter company contribution.

Attorneys want Starbucks to make unionized employees “whole” by providing back pay and other benefits.

Lawyers also said Starbucks made workers feel their union activity has been under surveillance. Earlier this year, Starbucks asked that store managers alert district managers of intents to unionize.

For its part, Starbucks argues that, legally, it does not have the same freedom to make improvements to working conditions at locations that have a union or where union organizing is underway,

“Black-letter law prohibits Starbucks from responding to union organizing at particular stores by promising or giving new wages or benefits to those partners,” attorneys for the company argued in court documents.

The company has moved to dismiss the case. A National Labor Relations Board judge is expected to make a ruling on that motion in the coming days. Meanwhile, arguments are continuing. The National Labor Relations Board hearing is expected to last at least a week.

Visitors crowd around the entrance to the Starbucks in Pike Place Market, known as the first Starbucks store.
Parker Miles Blohm
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KNKX
The first Starbucks location in Seattle's Pike Place Market. The multinational coffeehouse chain remains headquartered in Seattle, with corporate offices in the SoDo neighborhood.

If the judge concludes Starbucks broke labor laws, the company can then appeal that decision to all five members of the National Labor Relations Board.

At the same time, Starbucks filed five unfair labor practice charges this week against Workers United, the union representing most of the company’s unionized employees.

The charges allege that workers in Buffalo, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Louisville, and Long Beach broadcasted bargaining sessions to those not present. Starbucks also alleged that in at least one session, an illegal video recording was made.

If Starbucks' charges are found to have merit they will be the subject of their own NLRB hearing.

A statement published online by the company said: "We were pleased that Workers United representatives agreed to meet at locations around the country starting this week for in-person bargaining, which differed from earlier virtual bargaining sessions conducted by mutual agreement due to COVID-19 concerns."

Casey Moore with Starbucks Workers United denied there was any broadcasting or recording of bargaining sessions.

“It is categorically false for Starbucks to claim otherwise. In fact, Starbucks refused to bargain at all with workers and walked out of the bargaining room in multiple cities,” Moore said in an email to KNKX.

A press release by the union also specified that it had maintained the right to bargain in a hybrid manner —that is, in-person and virtually.

Moore added that the union intends to file new charges to the National Labor Relations Board over Starbucks’ refusal to bargain with some members of the bargaining committee joining over Zoom.

Lilly Ana Fowler reports on social justice issues for KNKX. She previously worked for the nonprofit news site Crosscut — a partner of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS station. Reach her at lfowler@knkx.org.
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