Starbucks Is Being Sued Over Its Treatment Of Pro-Union Workers

Starbucks is facing a lawsuit from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — the independent federal agency responsible for protecting employees and employers from unfair labor practices and overseeing union elections — after several employees claimed they'd been retaliated against for supporting unionization at their stores.

According to NPR, the NLRB filed the suit on April 22 in the U.S. District Court, demanding that the employees be reinstated at the Phoenix, Arizona, store they were fired from after another store in nearby Mesa voted to unionize. In a press release, the NLRB states that three of the four employees leading the push to unionize the Phoenix store were disciplined, with Starbucks reportedly disciplining, suspending, and discharging one employee, "constructively discharging" a second, and forcing the third into an unpaid leave of absence after denying her previously approved medical accommodations.

"Employees have the fundamental right to choose whether or not they want to be represented by the union without restraint or coercion by their employer," said Cornele Overstreet, NLRB's regional director for Phoenix. "The faith of Starbucks employees nationwide in workplace democracy will not be restored unless these employees are immediately reinstated."

The Phoenix fight came to light in mid-March after the Mesa store's employees voted overwhelmingly to become the third unionized Starbucks in the country. Since then, an additional 25 stores have voted to unionize according to NPR, while 220 more corporate-owned stores nationwide are seeking to hold elections. Only three stores that have voted have chosen not to unionize.

Rising contentions

The more stores push to start their own unions, the more Starbucks has been accused of trying to stop them. NPR reports that Workers United — the Service Employees International Union affiliate that the Starbucks employees have been seeking to join — has already filed over 80 complaints against Starbucks with NLRB. Meanwhile, Starbucks has filed two complaints against the union, claiming pro-union employees and organizers bullied and harassed customers and anti-union employees at the same Phoenix store, and a location in Denver where employees organized a walk-out on March 11 (via Yahoo! Finance).

In addition to the complaints of retaliation, Starbucks has been accused of threatening to exclude union employees from benefits. According to Vice, the company sent employees a letter in March suggesting that their pay and benefits will be frozen until they reach a contract if they vote to unionize, and heavily implied that it could take a year or more to reach such an agreement before ending the letter by saying, "I hope you'll consider voting No," in bold font. Interim CEO Howard Schultz also told a meeting of store leaders that the corporation was considering expanding benefits to employees, but that it would not necessarily be applied to the union employees.

While The Wall Street Journal explains it would be legal to have different benefits for different employees, Vice notes some experts think Schultz's comments around the announcement could be seen as a threat to intimidate employees from voting for unionization.