Starbucks has embarked on a campaign to stifle union organizing at its Buffalo stores, which could soon become the first in the U.S. to vote to unionize the coffee shop giant.
Since three stores filed for a union election in August and announced the formation of Starbucks Workers United, management at the coffee chain has been holding group and one-on-one meetings with workers, discouraging employees from speaking to reporters and posting on social media, and sending upper management into stores to monitor workers and to help make lattes, according to documents obtained by Motherboard. Three pro-union employees say these tactics have instilled fear into workers.
A fourth store in Cheektowaga, a Buffalo suburb, announced Wednesday that it had received support from an overwhelming majority of workers and is petitioning to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board.
“Upper management has come to every store in the district,” Casey Moore, a barista at one of the unionizing Starbucks in Buffalo, told Motherboard. “We’re doing card signing on the floor, because that’s our public space. But management is making people really nervous to talk about it. They’re coming and talking to people on our breaks. They came to my store on Sunday, and cornered a worker.”
Public documents on the National Labor Relations Board website show that Starbucks has retained Littler Mendelson, the largest union avoidance law firm in the United States, which has worked with Amazon, Nissan, and Delta Airlines, to represent the company on union-related matters in Buffalo.
While Starbucks has tried to distinguish itself as a progressive employer for decades by raising wages, offering health care benefits, and other perks, many of its tactics in Buffalo are standard practices used by anti-union employers to dissuade employees from engaging in collective action and unionizing. These practices include trying to make improvements and pander to workers in the lead-up to a union election.
“Our success is built on a long history of direct engagement and support for the well-being of our now over 400,000 partners around the world,” a spokesperson for Starbucks said. “We routinely create the space and forums for open and honest conversation as it relates to establishing and maintaining a great work environment. We will continue to empower our partners to constructively use their voice, and our local leaders to listen to and address directly the concerns of partners.”
In a memo sent to the region’s employees on August 31, obtained by Motherboard, titled “Your Voice Matters,” Allyson Peck, the Starbucks Buffalo regional vice president wrote, “Unfortunately, I know sometimes partners prefer to go to social media or to a reporter – like the posts on TikTok or recent articles in the news media. These are hard to see, because I also know from our history as a company, that when we hear directly from partners first, we can have an immediate conversation about it.”
“Our messaging has been that we are organizing a union because we want a voice in the workplace and they took this language and sent out a weekly response from the regional vice president, saying your voice matters already,” Moore, the Starbucks barista, said. “They took our language and used it.”
A spokesperson for Starbucks noted that a similar memo had been sent to all Starbucks employees around the country by regional vice presidents.
In recent weeks, executives from Seattle and regional managers have swarmed local stores, pulling aside workers to chat one-on-one during their breaks, at peak hours, at night, and even on Labor Day weekend, helping baristas make coffee, clean up, and take out the trash.
“They’re rolling up expensive suits to wash dishes and do trash runs. It’s almost comical,” said Jaz Brisack, a barista from one of the Buffalo stores that filed for a union election.
Rossann Williams, the president of Starbucks North America—which has more than 8,000 coffee shops—also has been spending long hours in Buffalo stores, talking to workers, sitting in the parking lot, and handing out $10 gift cards to customers, according to workers. Motherboard spoke to workers in three separate stores who said that they feel surveilled, distracted, and intimidated by Williams’ sudden presence in their stores.
A spokesperson for Starbucks noted that Williams makes stops at Starbucks around the country each week to talk to workers.
This week, Starbucks announced that unionizing stores will hold mandatory meetings, known as “captive audience meetings,” that are regularly used by employers to dissuade and intimidate workers from unionizing by presenting anti-union rhetoric as fact. These meetings are also used as an opportunity for employers to gauge which workers are pro-union—a tactic used by many anti-union employers across the country such as Amazon, Whole Foods, and Walmart.
Last week, the company also held paid “listening sessions” at stores throughout the area for workers to discuss concerns about their working conditions. Employees who’ve worked at stores in the area for over a decade say they’ve never been invited to these sessions before or been paid visits by top level executives. The spokesperson for Starbucks said the company regular holds listening sessions at its stores around the country, and that this isn’t unique to Buffalo.
At one of these sessions, the North America president, Williams, told workers, “We don’t believe our partners need unions to speak on their behalf,” Motherboard confirmed.
In response to employee concerns, management has suddenly replaced an oven that had been broken, fixed carpets, and sent an exterminator into a store to remove a beehive, where workers had been getting stung regularly for months.
In the lead-up to union elections, experts say that anti-union employers will frequently try to defeat a union drive by cozying up to workers, trying to make last minute amends, and promising to make improvements and increase pay in order to convince workers that a union is not necessary.
Despite this sudden interest in improving conditions for their workers in Buffalo, members of Starbucks Workers United say executives, including Williams, have refused to sign a set of “fair election principles,” that the workers proposed which include allowing the union to hold meetings in response to those the company holds, refraining from bribing or threatening workers to gain their support, and agreeing to no negative repercussions in response to a successful union election.
In an hour-long one-on-one session with Williams, Michael Sinabria, a Starbucks employees at one of the unionizing stores in Buffalo said Williams told him, “the best way for the company to listen to the partners is not have something come between us.”
Starbucks Workers United filed for an election next week, but have not yet received approval from the National Labor Relations Board. A hearing has been scheduled for September 20.
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