Starbucks Asks Labor Board to Halt Mailing of Union Ballots
(Bloomberg) -- Starbucks Corp. asked the U.S. labor board to ditch plans to mail out ballots on Wednesday in unionization elections that could create a first-ever labor foothold among its thousands of corporate-run stores in the U.S.
In filings with the National Labor Relations Board Monday, the coffee chain argued that an acting regional director’s ruling, green-lighting store-by-store votes at three locations in and around Buffalo, New York, where workers petitioned to unionize, should be overturned.
Thanks to President Joe Biden’s appointments, three of the labor board’s five members are now Democrats with union backgrounds, reducing the likelihood that they would heed Starbucks’ request to intervene and prevent the election ordered by the agency’s regional office from proceeding.
In its filings, the company wrote that the Oct. 28 ruling is contrary to U.S. labor law and would result in “disenfranchisement” by denying employees throughout the region the chance “to vote together on this important issue of union representation.”
Starbucks has argued that the pool of voters for any unionization election should at a minimum involve employees from across its 20 stores in the region, meaning that the union wouldn’t prevail unless it secured a majority among that larger group.
Attorneys for the company also wrote that the acting regional director’s ruling would create a “fractured” bargaining unit in which employees “working under centralized control” by the company would be arbitrarily split up “based solely on their happening to work” at a particular location on a certain day.
In her ruling last month, the Buffalo-based agency official wrote that Starbucks “has failed to sustain its burden” to overcome the agency’s usual presumption that the employees at a single worksite can be an appropriate group to vote on unionization. Her ruling cited the distance between Starbucks’ locations, variations in working conditions, and local stores’ autonomy on day-to-day operations.
“The reason they are trying to cancel the election is apparently they are terrified to let the baristas have a voice,” Richard Bensinger, an organizer for Workers United, the union that employees petitioned to join, said in an email. “Why do they call them partners if they don’t want to give them a voice?”
A Starbucks spokesperson said that the company was seeking to avoid confusion and ensure employees throughout the region would have a chance to vote because they would all be affected if some stores were unionized.
Pro-union employees have alleged in recent weeks that the company deployed out-of-town managers to visit their stores and try to dissuade them from unionizing. The employees said they were pressured to attend meetings in which company representatives warned that organizing could lead to the loss of some benefits. The company has said that workers are expected to attend its meetings but aren’t punished if they refuse, and that it’s not uncommon for higher-ups to visit its stores.
Starbucks also closed stores early and brought its former Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz to speak to employees Saturday at an event in Buffalo. He said that Starbucks had already built “a different kind of company,” and that no outsiders had successfully “pressured us, maneuvered us, threatened us to do anything other than what we felt in our heart and our conscience we needed to do and should do for the people who wear the green apron.”
Starbucks’ motion is “a long shot,” said University of North Carolina law professor Jeffrey Hirsch, a former NLRB attorney. “Even if Starbucks is right that the unit should be larger, at most it would be a close call. Which would mean that the need for emergency action is quite hard to justify.”
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