Starbucks workers rally and march on April 23, 2022 in Seattle to unionize. Photo credit: Elliot Stoller

Rulings increase favoring Starbucks employees reprimanded, fired for unionizing efforts

4 mins read

The alleged union-busting coffee chain previously relied on a lengthy review process from a federal labor agency plagued by personnel and financial constraints. The wait put workers’ demands on the back burner, but as of late, there has been a noticeable uptick in momentum in adjudications of Starbucks cases. 

Whenever Starbucks workers receive any kind of ruling in their favor from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), you can almost set your watch to the coffee giant’s iron fist coming around the corner waiting to slug employees in their pockets. Whether that comes in the form of a refusal to increase union member’s wages or pink slips, the company’s reactionary behavior is in a word “childish” according to Workers United spokesperson, Casey Moore who lives in Buffalo, New York. But now the NLRB’s rulings are happening a little faster than they can swing.

“For two years now we’ve been in this union fight where Starbucks has done a number of illegal things that we now have decisions from administrative law judges (ALJ) confirming that,” Moore told Ark Republic.  

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) seconds Moore’s motion. She asserts that Starbucks has been one of the worst offenders when it comes to federal labor. In 22 out of 23 decisions, judges have found that “Starbucks committed more than, get ready for it, 230 Federal Labor Law violations.”

“They’ve continued to fire union leaders, threaten benefits, not provide credit card tipping, or offer raises to unionized workers. It’s all a part of this really aggressive and illegal union busting campaign to try to stop workers from exercising their legal right to organize a union,” continued Moore. 

Yet, in an unexpected turn of events, the independent federal agency that protects the rights of private sector employees, has picked up speed despite being understaffed and underfunded since 2014. Now, they are issuing rulings left and right. 

Last year, the federal agency finished strong, finding that Starbucks unlawfully refused to bargain with the union at its Reserve Roastery in Seattle. 

Following that, Starbucks was ordered to offer reinstatement and provide whole monetary relief for two unlawfully discharged employees, Echo Nowakowska and Tristan J. Bussiere, in Philadelphia

Further, a three-member panel, board members, Marvin E. Kaplan, Gwynne A. Wilcox, and the chair, Lauren M. McFerran, upheld an ALJ finding that Starbucks had illegally threatened workers if they testified in response to an NLRB subpoena without first securing shift coverage. Also, the coffee company barred any union solicitation or distribution during paid break times at a Seattle store. As a result, the Board instructed Starbucks to stop engaging in such behavior. 

Finally, Starbucks was ordered to offer reinstatement and provide whole monetary relief for Ann Arbor, Michigan employee Hannah Whitbeck, who was discharged due to her union activity and participation in a labor board proceeding.

“I would hope that they learn their lesson, that firing people because they want to start a union is not going to solve their problems,” said Whitbeck.

Likewise, Moore was on the receiving end of a win. A 218-page ruling by the ALJ found Starbucks to have engaged in “egregious and widespread misconduct” demonstrating a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights at several of its locations in the Buffalo area. 

In the ruling, the cafe franchise was given a long list of directives. The top two were to reinstate employees who had been wrongfully terminated and to provide 27 team members financial restitution for infractions such as authorizing time off. As well, the company was advised to post a notice of workers rights at all U.S. stores; as well as electronically, including on all forms of social media. Moreover, Starbucks executives Howard Schultz and Denise Nelson were mandated to either read an Explanation of Rights to employees, or to be present when a board agent read it to the staff at the stores in the Buffalo region.

‘Change is Brewing!’ protest sign by Starbucks workers’ unionizing efforts at Courthouse Plaza in Arlington, Virginia in December 2022. Photo credit: Ron Cogswell/Flickr

Bet you didn’t see that one coming

So where did all of this momentum come from? Just before the year ended, Congress passed an Omnibus Bill that would fund the government $1.7 trillion for the remainder of the year. It included provisions that would expand workplace protections for pregnant and nursing employees as well as a $25 million increase in funding for the NLRB. After years of running on fumes, Congress finally funded the agency a total of $299.224 million for 2023.

“While we had hoped for a greater increase that would allow us to fund all of the Agency’s pressing needs, this appropriation will make a significant difference for the Agency, our valued employees, and the public we serve,” said NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo and Chairman Lauren McFerran, in a statement regarding the funding in the 2023 Omnibus Bill. 

Undeterred by remaining short staffed, the additional funding allowed them to hit the ground running

“I am hoping that we’re going to see a greater empowered NLRB, the lawsuits that have been filed against [Starbucks] I think ought to demonstrate that they’re not winning,” said Rep. Schakowsky, is a dues paying member of Workers United, which is an affiliate of SEIU. 

Looking ahead to 2024, “there is going to be a lot of conflict in getting a new budget done.”

It’s difficult to imagine that congress will be able to pass full appropriations as Republicans are always in favor of cutting federal staff when it comes to budget negotiations, according to the congresswoman. 

Despite what is going on in the background politically, the representative claims that organized labor is experiencing something akin to a renaissance. Furthermore, young people have never supported labor in the same way as they do right now. They understand that collective bargaining and establishing a union are the best strategies to protect their job, wages, and working conditions.

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In the end, the same ditch Starbucks is digging for unionized workers might be the very one they fall in as Congresswoman Schakowsky plans to turn up the heat. 

Journalist established in 2001, inspired by transformative leads.

Following a recent protest she attended in solidarity at her neighborhood Starbucks, the representative is “all in on this fight” and intends to see to it that the coffee shop is brought to trial this month for failing to respond to union negotiating as mandated. Indeed, this David and Goliath story between Starbucks employees and executives has been a marathon, but the long haul is paying off drip by drip.

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