Senator Michael Gianaris meets with United Union Workers on March 16, 2022 in Astoria Queens, NY. Photo credit: Michael Gianaris Flickr page

Starbucks workers gain momentum in unionization efforts despite NLRB underfunding, shortened staff

8 mins read

Anti-union tactics by Starbucks’ corporate escalate. While Democratic legislators double down on workers’ support, the NLRB’s budget issues cannot keep up with complaints against the coffee bean conglomerate.

Store-by-store, Starbucks employees who are known as partners, have been voting in favor of union representation since December 2021. So far, 278 Starbucks stores have unionized with locations in Ohio, Washington state, central New York and Colorado joining in the last days of January. 

With the new Republican-majority House, it is likely that their organizing will be challenged. This makes union-supporters like Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s (D-IL) push for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to continue investigating Starbucks’ union-busting practices. “This is about justice. The Republicans have a long history of being anti-union and I’m sure that they will find ways to try and diminish the rights of workers to organize, but in the meantime the law is the law,” Rep. Schakowsky told Ark Republic. 

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employers cannot interfere with employees’ coordinating efforts to improve working conditions. Nor can they stop them from “organizing, forming, joining or assisting a labor organization for collective bargaining purposes.” While the Republican party is known for disrupting union efforts, the Democrats back unionized labor as a key in building the middle class. “We’re going to certainly be pressing to make sure that unions and union workers are protected,” pledged Rep. Schakowsky.

To date, Starbucks has used its money to propagate against unions and disincentivize unionized locations. Reports detail the practice of the company excluding employees who work at unionized shops from wage increases and other benefits such as credit card tipping. Workers also say their schedules are being cut to less than 20 hours a week.

“The only way to receive a better salary would be to not join a union? How unfair is that?” Asked a Starbucks Barista in Bronx, New York who wishes to remain anonymous.

Starbucks’ anti-unionizing has become so contentious that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) sent another letter to the coffee company’s CEO, Howard Schultz voicing concern over the company’s antagonistic actions against its partners. The letter demands that Schultz “bargain a first contract in good faith” with workers who “corporate leadership has fought . . . every step of the way,” towards their efforts at collective bargaining. He cited the company made $3.3 billion in the first nine months of 2022, and is now a $3.8 billion conglomerate, all at the hands of those who pour java cup-by-cup even when they “risked their health and well-being” during the pandemic. 

In the correspondence, Sen. Sanders pointed out that Jaz Brisack, a Starbucks employee in Buffalo, New York was “unlawfully fired” for organizing the first favorable union efforts out of any store. The NLRB General Counsel “found merit to her claim” and has filed a complaint against Starbucks on her behalf. Currently, there are almost 500 claims filed against the coffee bean giant.

Regardless of all of the retaliatory measures of Starbucks’ corporate heads, there have been 358 Starbucks stores that have petitioned the NLRB to hold union elections.

Say their name: ‘Union-strong’ 

In Illinois, “[Legislators] just passed a [constitutional amendment] for workers’ rights that guarantees the right to organize a union,” said Rep. Schakowsky who is also a proud monthly dues-paying member of Workers United, the same union organizing Starbucks. 

While the bill takes union efforts a “step further” it is still “harder in so-called right to work states to actually have all the opportunities to organize but it’s not impossible,” the congresswoman explained further.  

To show support to unionizing efforts, Rep. Schawkowsky has been to a number of Starbucks to bolster efforts for them to secure a contract. 

“We are encouraging patrons to say union-strong as opposed to saying their name when placing an order,” she asserted.

New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris backed Starbucks workers at the location close to him in Astoria, New York in March of last year. “I call on Starbucks to allow the free, unencumbered election these workers deserve,” said the Senate Deputy leader who was one of several local elected officials who signed a letter demanding Starbucks, under Schultz’s leadership, to “respect their right to organize.”

State Sen. Michael Gianaris meets with United Union Workers March 16, 2022 in Astoria. Shows his cup saying “Union Strong.” Photo credit: Michael Gianaris Flickr page

An uphill battle

After acquiring the momentum to organize, Starbucks employees’ efforts come to an unexpected bottleneck. Those seeking to open up investigations about union busting tactics, find their complaints in a long, slowly progressing list of NLRB cases in queue. Ironically, the lack of staff and funding at the federal agency overseeing labor relations has created a backlog. 

Since 2022, the General Counsel of the NLRB, Jennifer Abruzzo, has petitioned Congress to increase the agency’s budget in order to hire more workers. According to Abruzzo, the field staff in regional offices have been cut in half since 2002. “They do all the investigations, they do all the litigation, they do all of the settlements, they do all of the compliance work, they conduct all of the elections, they do most of the outreach,” detailed Abruzzo.

To burden the agency more, the $1.5 trillion spending package passed by Congress in March neglected to earmark more funds for the NLRB, while the Department of Labor received a $1.9 billion increase.

The NLRB has not received an increase in funding since 2014 when Republicans held the majority during the Obama Administration. During the Trump Administration, Peter Robb, a famous management lawyer known for breaking the strike of air traffic controllers under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, was selected as General Counsel of the NLRB. 

While Robb held that position, staff moved on to other jobs. Additionally, he offered buyouts, luring additional employees to leave. Still, those positions remain vacant. 

Moreover, the NLRB violated the Congressional spending authority when it failed to spend its budget in 2018 and 2019, causing the board’s inspector general to launch an investigation. Results showed “two material weaknesses in internal control” that were the “quality control procedures that caused financial reporting and accounting discrepancies,” and “a lack of sufficient general information technology controls and monitoring.”

Due to the years of understaffing, NLRB’s workload increased significantly for employees at the agency, causing a severe backlog of pending trials. Worsening matters, when Joe Biden took office, there was already a substantial amount of trials awaiting scheduling.  Consequently, those that were scheduled took longer to reach an Administrative Law Judge.

To address the issue, one of the first things President Biden did when he took office was fire Robb. Shortly thereafter, Abruzzo stepped into the position of NLRB General Counsel. Next, Gwynne Wilcox and David Prouty—two union-side labor lawyers—were assigned to fill the vacancies on the five-member board. 

Additionally, Abruzzo’s office put together a team located in the regional Denver office headed by director Paula Sawyer to handle the surge in Starbucks petitions. Be that as it may, there is still an insufficient amount of staff and funds to run the NLRB sufficiently.

“Honestly, if I was an ‘evil union buster,’ I would break the law, too, because there’s basically no consequences,” expressed Jesse Mason, a former Verizon Wireless specialist who was fired after attempting to unionize his store in Seattle. “Even if they’re found conclusively by a court of law to have done something wrong, the most that happens is a year later, maybe two years later, that person gets put back to work with some back pay.”

The big buy back. A method to their madness

One might question why financially successful corporations go through such great lengths to undermine workers’ demands. Behind the scenes of union-busting is the unwillingness of corporate executives to forgo profits that come in the form of corporate stock buybacks.

A stock buyback allows a company to reinvest in itself. It refers to when a company buys back its shares from the market with the cash it has accumulated. The muddy financial practice was prohibited until former President Ronald Regan made them legal in 1982. During that time, wages stopped rising for most Americans. Prior to this change in legislation, larger percentages of corporate profits went into employee wages.

Presently, share buybacks account for much of the reason stock prices rise. For years, corporations have used their profits to repurchase their stock rather than increase the salaries of company employees. The process artificially interferes in a free market due to its anti-competitive tactics. It also creates a false sense of demand which eventually drives stock prices higher than they should be. With fewer shares in circulation, the remaining shares are worth more.   

According to Berkeley professor, and former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, rather than stock buybacks creating more jobs, acquiring new equipment, or increasing wages, the money is directed to the pockets of those who control them. Moreover, they fail to grow the economy.

“Don’t tell me corporations have no choice but to raise prices. Corporate profits are at a 70-year high. Corporations are doing just fine. Regular people are not,” stated Reich. 

Buyback practices are also found at the online retailer, Amazon, another company noted for its notorious union-busing. They implemented a plan to repurchase $10 billion worth of its shares. This was the company’s largest share buy back program since it went public on the Nasdaq in 1997. 

“This split will give our employees more flexibility in how they manage their equity in Amazon and make the share price more accessible for people looking to invest in the company,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement.

Likewise, Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz had plans to repay $20 billion to shareholders over three fiscal years. However, Schultz had a change of heart and suspended stock buybacks when House Democrats, Rep. Schakowsky and Rep. Chuy Garcia stated they would be investigating union busting within the coffee chain.

“I don’t see why you would need to make more money unless you are solely trying to help yourself,” South Carolina Starbucks Shift Leader, Mae Sproul told Ark Republic.

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Rep. Schakowsky at Planned Parenthood Rally American Life League in 2017. Photo credit: American Life League Flickr

While corporate executives increase their wealth with stock buybacks and Republicans hold the majority in the House, union-busting is becoming all the more severe. As such, the local Starbucks near Rep. Schakowsky’s office, where she and her staff frequently patronize, closed down four days before the employees of the coffee shop were scheduled to begin bargaining.  

Worst still, Starbucks implemented an insurance plan that would provide travel money for employees who want to go to another state to exercise their abortion rights. However, it does not appear that the company is extending that travel benefit to union workers, according to Rep. Schakowsky. At the very least, workers are reporting that they are ineligible under the foggy policy. 

What is clear, Starbucks is taking advantage of the NLRB’s unfavorable circumstances. Despite the coffee chain’s attempts to run out the clock, Rep. Schakowsky remains optimistic about the NLRB’s investigations. Indeed, it is only a matter of time before the independent federal agency uncovers the truth. The growing efforts of Starbucks workers to unionize show the emergence of another labor movement, but this one is led by baristas.

Journalist established in 2001, inspired by transformative leads.

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