Starbucks coming under pressure


The campaign to unionize Starbucks saw a flurry of activity in March, including legal and election wins, strikes, and a Congressional hearing. 

The month started with the National Labor Relations Board finding “egregious and widespread misconduct” by the coffee company in the form of hundreds of labor law violations. And it wrapped up with former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz — accused of orchestrating the anti-union campaign — subpoenaed to answer questions by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

In Oregon, workers filed March 22 for a union election at another store — 3350 NE Hwy. 101 in Lincoln City. Workers at six other Starbucks stores nationally filed the same day. 

Also on March 22, more than 100 Starbucks stores nationwide went on strike to protest Starbucks’ labor law violations — including 14 in Oregon and nine in Washington. 

At the Starbucks at 10215 SE Stark St. in Portland, workers walked off the job and shut the store down at 4 a.m. That drive-thru-only location runs 24 hours. Workers there say it’s one of the busiest in the region. 

Picket captain Elena Perrine was clear about why they were striking: Starbucks is refusing to bargain via Zoom, which workers view as the most accessible way to bargain. 

“The people at our store are focused on trying to pay the bills,” Perrine said. That’s not easy to do in Portland when wages start at $15.25 and top out at around $20 an hour. Perrine said most customers were incredibly supportive. 

In fact, one regular customer joined them. After her shift ended at the post office across the street, Cheryl Walton brought her dog, Maysee, and joined the picket line wearing her American Postal Workers Union T-shirt. 

“I’ve been telling them for a while they need to go on strike,” Walton said.

On the day of the strike, nearly 600 union members and supporters rallied outside Starbucks headquarters in Seattle. Maddy Broom, a barista at Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square store, was one of them.

“It was amazing to have so many bodies and so much energy in front of the headquarters,” said Broom, whose coworkers won their union election on March 3. “The company sent a line of security officers in front of the doors. You could see people inside the building on their cell phones looking down at us.” 

A first: Starbucks doesn’t walk out of bargaining

After the rally, Broom joined at least 60 Starbucks workers in a bargaining session for employees at the Madison Park store in Seattle. It was one of the few sessions in which company negotiators stayed in the room past introductions. Starbucks’ bargaining team typically walks out in the first minutes of the sessions in protest of the union’s request to include some members by Zoom, said Ian Meagher, a barista at the Eugene store at Franklin and Verland and an organizer for Starbucks Workers United. Workers want a hybrid (in-person and Zoom) bargaining option, because it’s more accessible for employees. The company refuses to agree to video calls, citing concerns about privacy — even though Starbucks shareholders calls happen by Zoom.

So at the March 22 session, workers agreed to turn off Zoom for a chance to actually bargain. Meagher said workers shared stories about their hardships working at Starbucks — becoming homeless after getting fired for unionizing a store, suffering verbal abuse from supervisors, lacking money to afford new work shoes, losing benefits because they were not scheduled enough hours to qualify even though they were willing to work, and being forced to come into work the day after being held at gunpoint in their store.  

“We watched as these stone-faced lawyers and human resources people stared unblinkingly at people baring their hearts and souls,” Meagher said. “There was not a drip of emotion or authenticity from the Starbucks side of things.” 

Schultz faces questions in Senate hearing

After Starbucks CEO Schultz brushed off an earlier invitation, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions scheduled a vote to subpoena him, compelling him to appear before them on March 29. The committee’s chair, Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders, wanted Schultz to answer questions about the company’s labor law violations. As of March 27, 513 unfair labor practice charges had been filed against the company, including 20 in Oregon and 71 in Washington. So far, NLRB investigators had found merit to 278 of those charges, and issued 83 formal complaints — the first stage in a process that can end up in federal court. Other cases are still being investigated.

After the threat of subpoena, Starbucks CEO agreed to attend. Under oath, he remained adamant that his company had not broken the law, and repeatedly called the NLRB rulings “allegations.” He pointed out that just 1% of the country’s Starbucks workers have chosen to unionize so far, and he repeated the false claim that unionizing deters direct communication between employees and managers. 

Democratic members of the committee questioned Schultz about the NLRB findings of labor law violations. Republican members praised his company’s success and questioned the NLRB’s objectivity.  

But by the time he testified, Schultz was no longer CEO; he decided to step down the week before. This is the third time he’s handed off the job to another Starbucks executive — and it happened two weeks earlier than planned. Schultz is replaced by Laxman Narasimhan, who last served as chief executive of U.K.-based Reckitt, which makes Lysol, other household goods and baby formula products.

Starbucks workers hope Narasimhan will back off the union-busting tactics. as his predecessor, 

“Laxman has gone through barista training,” said Broom, the Pioneer Square barista. “He’s saying he understands … what it’s like to be on the floor. We would like him to prove that by listening to us.” 

Don McIntosh also contributed reporting to this story.

Judge: Starbucks violated labor law hundreds of times

A federal administrative law judge issued a sweeping 218-page ruling March 1 that could lead to a humbling video statement from the coffee company’s top executives. NLRB Administrative Law Judge Michael A. Rosas ruled that Starbucks violated labor law hundreds of times in stores in the Buffalo, New York, area. To remedy the violations, Rosas ordered the company to: 

  • Reopen a store the company closed in retaliation for union activity. 
  • Reinstate seven workers who were unlawfully fired. 
  • Reimburse 27 workers for consequential harm caused by Starbucks’ retaliatory actions like cutting hours or withholding promotions. 
  • Bargain with the union at one store that lost its union election because of the company’s union busting.
  • Have Starbucks executives Howard Schultz and Denise Nelson read to Buffalo-area workers a 14-page notice that covers workers’ rights and Rosas’ orders. The reading would be recorded and shared with workers on all communication platforms the company uses, including text and email.
  • Post a written copy of that notice in all U.S. Starbucks stores. 

The ruling doesn’t address almost 500 other complaints waged against the company from stores outside of Buffalo. But given similar anti-union tactics employed around the country, similar rulings in other cases are likely. 

As of March 27, seven administrative law judges, the NLRB board, and two federal judges had issued a total of 13 decisions ordering remedies for unfair labor practices by Starbucks. The Buffalo decision is the largest so far. Seven of those rulings are being appealed, but none so far have been overturned by the board or circuit courts.

Starbucks union campaigns since we last comprehensively reported on them in November

  • 3350 NE Hwy. 101, Lincoln City: 18 workers filed March 22. Awaiting election. 
  • 1742 SW Sixth Ave., Portland: 20 workers filed March 14. Awaiting election.
  • 512 Walker Ave., Ashland: 24 workers filed March 6. Awaiting election. 
  • 2002 NW Stucki Ave., Hillsboro: Won election 15-0 March 17. 
  • 720 SW Broadway, Portland: Won electric 15-3 March 3. 
  • 10215 SE Stark St., Portland: Won election 13-3 Jan. 31
  • 7399 NE Butler St., Hillsboro: Lost election 10-9 Dec. 15.
American Postal Workers Union member Cheryl Walton, a regular at the Starbucks across the street from the post office where she works, brought her dog and joined their strike picket. | PHOTO BY DON McINTOSH


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