Starbucks Corp. illegally threatened employees in cities including its Seattle hometown, US labor-board prosecutors alleged in a Tuesday complaint.

A National Labor Relations Board regional director claims that letters issued by the company to staff at 10 stores in Washington state and Oregon violated federal law. Employees were told that when workers unionize, “negotiations can often take more than a year — if a contract is reached at all,” and that in the meantime “benefits and wages will essentially be frozen,” according to the complaint. 

By issuing that message, the company “has been interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees in the exercise of the rights” guaranteed by labor law, the regional director wrote.

Starbucks denied wrongdoing. “We want our partners to be informed and have all the facts when making their decision and have followed NLRB rules to ensure they have what they need to make the best decision for themselves,” spokesperson Reggie Borges said in an email. “Claims of anti-union activity are categorically false.”

NLRB regional directors around the country have issued more than 20 complaints against Starbucks on behalf of the agency’s general counsel. In another Tuesday filing, the labor board’s Chicago regional director accused the company of violating the law by prohibiting pro-union face masks and T-shirts, interrogating staff, telling employees unionization would be futile, and threatening them with the loss of raises and benefits if they organized.

Potential Appeals

Absent a settlement, such complaints are heard by agency judges, whose rulings can be appealed to labor-board members in Washington, D.C., and from there into federal court. The agency has the authority to order changes to company policies, but not to make employers pay punitive damages for violations.

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“The NLRB may have issued this complaint in Seattle, but workers across the country have been getting similar letters from Starbucks,” Arizona Starbucks employee Michelle Hejduk said in an emailed statement from the union, Starbucks Workers United. “This complaint just scratches the surface of the threats Starbucks has made to workers in their anti-union leaflets nationwide.”

Freezing benefits during contract talks has been a flashpoint in the nationwide struggle between the company and the union, which has prevailed this year in elections at over 200 of the chain’s roughly 9,000 corporate-run US cafes. 

In May, Starbucks announced a suite of new raises and benefits taking effect this month, but said those improvements wouldn’t apply to sites that unionized. The union has argued that withholding the new perks is an intimidation tactic. 

On its website, the company says, “The law is clear: once a store unionizes, no changes to benefits are allowed without good faith collective bargaining.”