Starbucks Workers Attempting to Unionize May Have Just Had Their Best Week Ever

This week, white-collar workers at Starbucks signed an open letter in solidarity with baristas, Bernie Sanders announced he will force Howard Schultz to testify before a Senate committee, and the NLRB condemned the company for ignoring worker’s fundamental rights.

A person holds a sign as Starbucks workers hold a rally on October 5, 2022 in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

After more than a year of fighting intense and often illegal union busting by Starbucks, the clouds definitively broke for unionizing baristas. Three separate allies came forward midweek in support of the militant workers.

First, dozens of the company’s own white-collar workers went into open revolt, releasing a letter to the public making clear their support for the baristas and opposing new back-to-office rules.

Then, Bernie Sanders’s office announced that the committee he chairs in the US Senate will seek a subpoena to force Howard Schultz, the outgoing CEO of Starbucks, to testify under oath about the company’s labor practices.

Finally, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative judge issued a ruling against the company stating, in a two-hundred-plus page document, that Starbucks had engaged in “egregious and widespread misconduct demonstrating a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights” in Buffalo, New York.

And that was just Wednesday.

“Things are starting to boil to the top,” said Boston-based barista Sky Bauer-Rowe. “It just needs a little bit more temperature.”

At about 9:00 a.m., Bloomberg broke a story about an open letter by several dozen white-collar employees of the union lending support to their barista coworkers. The workers, many of whom hold tech roles, criticized the company for “tampering with the federal right of store partners to have fair elections, free from fear, coercion, and intimidation.”

The letter also drew attention to the signatories’ own workplace issues, slamming Starbucks for a “poorly planned ‘return to office’ mandate” that “[prioritized] corporate control.”

The workers said, “We love Starbucks, but these actions are fracturing trust in Starbucks leadership.”

The move didn’t come out of nowhere; according to the Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), the white-collar workers had been coordinating with baristas in Seattle, where the company is headquartered. The open letter was signed by forty-four workers by name and had an additional twenty-two anonymous sponsors.

Soon after the signatories released the letter, Bernie Sanders’s office announced that Schultz will face a vote on a subpoena. An executive body of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), which Sanders chairs, will vote on March 8.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Schultz has given us no choice, but to subpoena him. A multi-billion-dollar corporation like Starbucks cannot continue to break federal labor law with impunity,” Sanders said in a release.

Bauer-Rowe reacted, “I’m very critical of politicians in general. . . . but then I see Bernie Sanders, putting a whole committee together to subpoena Howard Schultz. Wow, that’s more than any politician has ever done for us.”

While Sanders had previously hinted at a possible subpoena, his office had stayed mum until yesterday about whether that step would indeed be taken.

Sanders added, “For nearly a year, I and many of my colleagues in the Senate have repeatedly asked Mr. Schultz to respect the constitutional right of workers at Starbucks to form a union and to stop violating federal labor laws.”

He continued, “Mr. Schultz has failed to respond to those requests. He has denied meeting and document requests, skirted congressional oversight attempts, and refused to answer any of the serious questions we have asked.”

If Sanders’s committee moves forward with a subpoena, Schultz would be forced to testify and face questions about Starbucks’s union busting from the Vermont firebrand — along with other senators — under penalty of perjury.

But the day wasn’t over. At about 2:00 p.m., the NLRB administrative judge issued his ruling that Starbucks had violated federal labor law hundreds of times in Buffalo alone.

Stores in the Buffalo region were the first to organize in this latest wave of Starbucks unionizing, and there was little public attention to Starbucks’s illegal responses until SBWU achieved its first win in a store election in December 2021.

Workers, though, have long alleged that Starbucks had engaged in massive union busting in Buffalo, including store closures, firings, and other direct interference with the right to organize under the cover of night. With the support of parent union Workers United, SBWU workers registered hundreds of allegations of illegal union busting by Starbucks with the NLRB.

“It’s very validating to have this two-hundred-plus page document basically saying, ‘You’re right. He did all these things,’” said Casey Moore, an SBWU spokesperson.

If it is held up on potentially multiple appeals, the decision would reinstate and/or compensate dozens of workers for illegal union busting they endured, including seven who were fired. The judge ordered dozens of other remedies as well.

For example, the judge also ruled that a store that was illegally shut down will have to be reopened. Starbucks will also be forced to acknowledge to all of its baristas nationwide, through its electronic channels, a detailed and lengthy list of what it has been ordered to commit to by the NLRB.

The administrative judge is requiring that the notice be posted in all of the company’s stores for the duration of the organizing campaign. Schultz himself will personally have to read the notice to all Buffalo workers or do so on video.

While the judgment will not have immediate effect — it can be appealed within the NLRB and then in court — it continues to build SBWU’s case in the court of public opinion.

Moreover, the constant stream of legitimized allegations is regularly giving the “progressive” company black eyes in public. These threats to the company’s brand include unlawful firings, illegal hours cuts, selective benefits and raises to nonunion stores, and general interference with the freedom to organize.

And some on the business side are starting to take notice too; the company faces a shareholder vote on whether to hold an external examination of Starbucks’s labor practices at its upcoming annual meeting.

Taken together, Wednesday’s events were a breakthrough in holding Starbucks — and Howard Schultz himself — accountable for illegal union busting that baristas have long alleged, even as the chief executive prepares to go behind the scenes again.

With spring mornings waiting around the corner, baristas see daylight. “I feel like the walls are closing in on him and he can’t run anymore,” said Bauer-Rowe.

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