The U.S. labor board rejected Starbucks Corp.’s bid to prevent store-by-store unionization votes at several locations in the Buffalo, New York, area — dealing a preliminary victory to a labor group trying to establish the first union foothold in recent years among the coffee giant’s corporate-run U.S. stores.

In a Thursday ruling, Nancy Wilson, acting National Labor Relations Board regional director, wrote that Starbucks “has failed to sustain its burden” to overcome the agency’s usual presumption that the employees at a single worksite can be an appropriate group to vote on unionization. 

The decision underscores U.S. workers’ intensifying push to to improve their pay and working conditions following years of decline for organized labor. Private-sector union members are authorizing strikes at a rate rarely seen in modern America, with more than 100,000 workers recently threatening or mounting work stoppages across industries. The internet dubbed October #Striketober.

Wilson’s ruling cited the distance between Starbucks’ locations, variations in working conditions, and local stores’ autonomy on day-to-day operations. Starbucks had argued that because of similarities among its stores, any vote on unionization should include staff at all 20 of its Buffalo-area locations, which would have meant the union would need backing from a majority of voters across the region in order to win.

 Mail-in ballots should be sent to Starbucks employees on Nov. 10 and received back by Dec. 8, according to Wilson’s ruling.


Starbucks Workers United, the group trying to unionize the stores, called the ruling “a significant victory” in its campaign. 

“We have been fighting for our right to unionize and have a voice and a true partnership within the company,” the group, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, said in an emailed statement. “Starbucks has met our efforts with delay tactics, hostility, and intimidation, but this decision shows they are not prevailing.”

Workers want to eventually discuss issues including seniority pay, fair staffing and scheduling, said Jaz Brisack, a barista at one of the stores and a member of the group’s organizing committee.

Starbucks, which has said it complies “strictly with the laws and guidelines associated with union organizing activities,” said the company is evaluating its options in response to the ruling. 

“Our storied success has come from our working directly together as partners, without a third party between us,” spokesperson Reggie Borges said in an email. “We remain focused on supporting our partners as well as maintaining open, transparent and direct conversations throughout the process.”

The company on Wednesday announced a round of salary increases, pledging to bring hourly pay to near $17 next summer, compared to the current rate of about $14 an hour.  


Along with Starbucks, the past year has seen the launch of new high-profile labor campaigns at nonunion companies like Inc. and Alphabet Inc. A strike at cereal plants operated by Kellogg Inc. has recently entered its fourth week. 

Nationwide, the Covid-19 pandemic sparked activism among so-called essential workers, while President Joe Biden’s election spurred a new push to pass reforms that would restrict management tactics, such as mandatory anti-union meetings, that have become mainstays of U.S. organizing fights.  

This story was updated on January 21, 2022, to correct Starbucks’ union history. The United Food and Commercial Workers union represented workers at six stores in the Seattle area for several years in the 1980s. The Buffalo location was not the first company-owned store to unionize in Starbucks history.


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