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Labor expert weighs in after Starbucks and workers face off in Seattle hearing

Starbucks-Union Bargaining
Joshua Bessex
FR171816 AP
FILE - Starbucks employees and supporters react as votes are read during a union-election watch party on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. It’s become a common sight: jubilant Starbucks workers celebrating after successful votes to unionize at dozens of U.S. stores. But when the celebrations die down, a daunting hurdle remains. To win the changes they seek, like better pay and more reliable schedules, unionized stores must sit down with Starbucks and negotiate a contract. It’s a painstaking process that can take years.

A National Labor Relations Board judge is considering arguments over whether international coffee chain Starbucks broke labor laws when it offered higher wages and benefits exclusively to nonunion workers.

In a three-day hearing beginning Oct. 25, attorneys for Starbucks and workers faced off in Seattle.

Lawyers for Starbucks workers argued unionized employees are entitled to the higher wages and other benefits recently offered exclusively to nonunion employees, including increased training, updated dress code policies and faster sick time accrual. They say the only reason not to extend these benefits is to dissuade more workers from unionizing. Starbucks contended that, legally, it can’t extend those same benefits to stores where union activity is already underway.

"Starbucks can win even by losing at the NLRB."

John Logan, chair of the labor and employment studies program at San Francisco State University, has been following the case and sees Starbucks’ defense as a delaying tactic.

“Starbucks would have a legitimate position if the union had objected to extending those benefits to stores where workers had already voted to unionize,” Logan said. “But in fact, it did the exact opposite. It said we're not going to object.”

Logan also believes Starbucks is likely to lose the case. He said lawyers only need to show that workers reasonably believed that the message Starbucks was sending was that they would be retaliated against if they moved forward with unionization.

“The problem is when you have a company with such deep pockets as Starbucks and that it's willing to fight to the bitter end, Starbucks can win even by losing at the NLRB,” Logan added, noting that the penalties for breaking federal labor laws are often not sufficient to deter big companies such as Starbucks and Amazon.

In fact, Logan thinks Starbucks might already be succeeding in slowing down unionizing efforts.

The ruling in this case would impact workers at stores around the country. Starbucks has about 9,000 company stores with approximately 250 unionizing so far.

At the same time, the National Labor Relations Board has issued 42 complaints against Starbucks, involving 142 unfair labor practice charges. Hundreds more charges that are still being investigated have been filed against the company.

“You've actually never in the history of the board had so many unfair labor practices charges filed against one company in such a short period of time,” Logan said.

If the National Labor Relations Board judge rules against Starbucks in this case, the company is likely to appeal. The case would then go before all five members of the board.

The judge’s ruling is expected in the coming weeks.

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
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