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Spilling the Beans on Starbucks’ Union Busting

By Zach Brown

Recently, it certainly seems like unions are having a moment in the sun. Workers across the nation continue to more actively vote to unionize in order to collectively fight for better wages, working conditions, and better treatment from their employers. All the while, public opinion of unions continues to soar, reaching its highest level of approval from the American public in over 50 years.

And while these important successes suggest the unionization movement has reached a new stage, there is still much more work to be done. For starters, while in 1983 1 in 5 US workers were members of a union, today only 1 in 10 workers are unionized. 

Of course, it is no accident that union numbers have dipped since 1983, given the various tactics used by corporations in order to halt their employees’ unionization plans. And when it comes to union-busting (the term used to describe these malicious acts against their employees) there are seemingly no lines a corporation won’t cross in order to stop their workers from coming together, with methods ranging from the abrupt closing of a store as the union drive takes shape, all the way to directly spying on their employees.

So as employers regularly continue to attempt to callously crush their employees’ unionization efforts before they get off the ground, it’s important that we continue to support workers in their fight for more just representation whenever and wherever we can and to call out companies that are blocking unionization.

We saw firsthand one such attempt to hold employers accountable to their employees in a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing focused on the recent union elections happening at Starbucks coffee shops around the nation. And the dialogue between current interim Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and the Senate members certainly did not disappoint.

Starbucks has deservedly come under fire recently for the way it has operated throughout the union formation process. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) General Counsel has already weighed in that Starbucks is likely breaking federal law by refusing to meet and negotiate with these newly formed unions, a key tactic by the company allegedly used to delay the bargaining process unnecessarily. Unfortunately, the tactic has seemingly worked thus far: over 250 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize, yet Starbucks has yet to reach an agreement with any individual union. Even during the hearing, the embattled Schultz rebuffed the need for the company’s workers to collectively bargain, instead turning towards his own biased view on Starbucks’ record in regard to wages and benefits, demonstrating a clear lack of understanding about the importance of unionized representation of workers, regardless of his many inaccurate and overly rosy claims about the current working conditions Starbucks employees are forced to endure.

But while Schultz repeatedly denied claims of foul play in regard to the company’s ongoing negotiations with its workers who voted to unionize, the facts surrounding the company’s actions paint a decidedly different picture. For starters, Starbucks has repeatedly been the subject of labor complaints holding it accountable for allegations of anti union actions. In March, the NLRB found that the coffeehouse giant illegally fired six workers in a direct pushback to unionization efforts in New York. The NLRB judge even went as far to call Starbucks’ actions “egregious and widespread.” Does that sound like the supposedly pro-worker corporation Schulz was so desperately trying to portray during the hearing?

Likewise, just as recently as March 31, a high profile organizer involved in the unionization campaign in Buffalo was fired after seven years working for the company. Curious timing, to say the least.

Unfortunately, Starbucks is far from the only alleged bad actor when it comes to trying to combat the unionization of its employees. That’s why it’s so critical that Congress seeks a nationwide solution– such as renewing a push toward making it easier for workers to form a union. Given the increased power successful unionization efforts will afford workers,it is no surprise that corporate lobbying groups like the US Chamber of Commerce have quickly lined up in its expected position of fighting against transformative labor legislation like the The Richard L. Trumka Protecting the Right to Organize Act (commonly known as the PRO Act).

The PRO Act was recently reintroduced in the House and Senate, and is packed with a variety of reforms that could give workers around the country the boost they need in their unionization efforts. If passed into law, employers would be under more explicit penalties for violating their workers’ rights, including giving workers support when they suffer direct retaliation for their unionization efforts. Additionally, the bill provides more safeguards to protect the union election process, preventing employers from engaging in destructive tactics like “captive audience meetings.”

Captive audience meetings, as their name implies, are mandatory gatherings held by employers giving them the bully pulpit to dissuade workers from unionizing which creates what amounts to undue pressure. Fortunately, current National Labor Relations Board General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo has weighed in on the matter— pushing to do away with the employer practice– the PRO Act would enact this incredibly important change for workers in one decisive swoop, doing away with these deceptive meetings for good.

Along with champions like HELP Committee Chair Sanders, Public Citizen will continue to fight for the ability of workers to more easily unionize across the country, gaining the wages, conditions, and rights they deserve as the true backbone of every company.