Federal regulators are asking a judge to ensure seven fired workers win their jobs back at the Memphis Starbucks they were attempting to unionize, alleging the coffee giant used “coercive measures,” after the drive attracted media attention.
The National Labor Relations Board asked the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee to issue an injunction on Tuesday that would allow the workers to be reinstated at the Poplar Highlands coffee shop in Memphis. Kathleen McKinney, the NLRB director for the New Orleans region, also said that the company must “cease its unlawful conduct immediately so that all Starbucks workers can fully and freely exercise their labor rights.”
The company has said the dismissals stemmed from violations of company policy. On Wednesday, Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges emphasized that the complaint does not constitute a finding by the NLRB. Rather, it’s the beginning of a litigation process in which both sides will be heard.
The NLRB reviews labor grievances from unions or individual employees, and files a complaint if its own investigation determines the claims have merit. An administrative law judge then convenes a hearing to weigh the evidence from both parties and decide what to do. Such cases can take a year or longer to resolve.
“We believe the allegations contained in the filing by the NLRB Regional Director are false, and we look forward to presenting our evidence when the allegations are adjudicated,” Borges said in an email.
Starbucks is among a handful of traditionally nonunion companies being swept up in a reinvigorated labor movement. Persistent labor shortages have given workers newfound leverage at a time when many are rethinking their career priorities, leaving fertile ground for unions. A grass roots effort on New York’s Staten Island resulted in the first successful election at an Amazon warehouse, and a handful of Apple stores have announced their intention to organize. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Starbucks has largely staved off unions in the five decades since it was founded in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, in part by pointing to its above-average benefits. But in the past year, baristas aligned with Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, have filed petitions for union elections at more than 250 of Starbucks’ roughly 9,000 coffee shops as they ask for better pay, scheduling and coronavirus safety protocols.
Among 42 union votes in which the results have been finalized, all but one fell in favor of the union, according to NLRB records.
Starbucks has countered with CEO Howard Schultz holding meetings with baristas and by promising to raise pay for nonunion workers. But labor officials have accused the company of resorting to such union-busting tactics as terminating union activists to prevent them from organizing, an allegation the company denies.
As of Tuesday, there were 128 Starbucks-related unfair labor practice cases in 19 states, almost all of which were filed by Workers United, according to NLRB spokeswomen Kayla Blado. In turn, Starbucks has filed two complaints against Workers United for allegedly intimidating employees who don’t support organizing efforts.
The NLRB has issued consolidated complaints covering 45 of those cases, according to NLRB records. Twenty-nine of them are from the Buffalo area, an initial locus of the Starbucks union effort. The others are from Arizona, Missouri and Wisconsin. None of them have yet resulted in a public court decision.
It’s very common for the NLRB to seek reinstatement when workers are fired amid a union drive, says Sid Lewis, a New Orleans-based labor attorney who exclusively represents management with the law firm Jones Walker.
“It takes nothing to file a charge, and [the union] wants to show they are fighting on behalf of the employees,” Lewis said.
In such cases the NLRB has to prove based on a preponderance of evidence – a relatively low standard that is commonly applied to civil cases – that the employee’s dismissal was likely a result some protected activity, such as trying to form a union. The company usually asserts the firing was because of some policy violation, Lewis said, and the policies have to have been consistently enforced for it to constitute a reason for firing someone.
According to the NLRB’s complaint, Starbucks stepped up the frequency and length of time its managers were present at the Poplar Highlands coffee shop starting in late January, and at some point removed pro-union materials from the store’s bulletin board. Then, on Feb. 8, seven employees were all fired on the same day, five of whom were on the store’s union organizing committee, according to the NLRB.
Starbucks claimed the affected workers violated safety policies by remaining at the store after hours to conduct a media interview about the unionization effort. They opened a locked door to allow “unauthorized individuals” into the store, then left the door unlocked, said Borges, the Starbucks spokesman. He also referenced an incident in which a Starbucks worker opened the store’s safe without being authorized to do so.
“A partner’s right to organize does not exempt them from adhering to our policies,” Borges wrote. “We will continue to enforce those policies equally for all partners.”
Starbucks is the largest coffee retailer in the world, with a market cap of $80.4 billion and 34,000 stores around the globe. Shares fell 2.5% Wednesday to close at $70.06.