Starbucks' LA Store Closures Leave More Questions Than Answers

Last week Starbucks announced that it would be closing 16 retail locations across the United States, according to CNN. The coffee mega-chain cited "safety concerns" as the reason for these closures. Interim CEO Howard Schultz is making the move amid a drive for unionization of employees in many stores across the U.S.

In an open letter to partners attributed to Starbucks senior vice presidents of U.S. operations Debbie Stroud and Denise Nelsen expressed their concern for partner's safety. In the letter, they also stated that making changes to operations such as closing bathrooms to the public, modifying store layouts, or closing stores were available to partners when safe operations were "no longer possible."

Starbucks introduced an open bathroom policy after a racially charged incident involving two Black men ended in their arrest at a Philadelphia Starbucks in 2018, as The New York Times reports. The two men were waiting to meet a friend, and asked to use the bathroom before making a purchase. They were denied, and later asked to leave the premises. Staff members then called police to have the men arrested and removed. Since then, Starbucks has operated with an open bathroom policy (via The New York Times), but that policy seemed to be in consideration when Schultz stated that they needed to "harden" their stores, and "provide safety for our people."

Closures seen as union-busting efforts

Despite Starbucks' public statements on the closures, there are some who question the legitimacy of their rationale, according to Eater. Starbucks partner and lead union organizer at a Los Angeles-based location, Tyler Keeling, believes that the closures are being used to dissuade union organization efforts. Six of the locations closed were in the Los Angeles area where Keeling's store had already voted to unionize. According to Fox 5, more than nine Starbucks in California have already approved a union. 

In These Times also reported that pro-union partners with Starbucks Workers United filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board in response to the closures. It cited that two of the 16 closures had already approved a union, and a third was set to hold a vote in August. The Street notes that there are 9,000 Starbucks locations, 230 of which are in the process of forming a union, and 50 have already approved joining the National Workers United union. 

Starbucks has been accused of union busting in the past. NPR reports that Starbucks closed an Ithaca, NY. location months after it had voted to form a union, with some calling the closure a form of retaliation again unionizing. There are also claims that Starbucks has simply grown too large, and is starting to cannibalize its own profits (via Investopedia). Eater described one of the closed locations as being within walking distance of four other Starbucks. A leaked video also showed Schultz warning of future closures.