The union representing Starbucks employees at about 200 of its cafes claims the coffee chain closed two locations in retaliation for organizing activities there.
As reported by Reuters, employees at the two stores - one in Kansas City, Missouri, and another in Starbucks' hometown Seattle, Washington, - learned on Monday that their locations would close, the Workers United union said in a statement. Workers at both stores have asked the National Labor Relations Board to hold union elections.
The company cited business and safety reasons for the closures.
"We apply the same focus on safety at unionized and non-union stores and are closing non-union stores where we are similarly challenged in providing a safe environment for our customer and partner experience," a Starbucks spokesperson said.
Starbucks has closed 19 stores in the past few months, 42% of which had union activity, the union said.
The Seattle location is one of the roughly 9,000 U.S. cafes operated by Starbucks directly. But it will become a licensed store run by the grocery chain to which it is attached.
The Kansas City cafe is the second busiest in the area, the union said. The reason it was given for the closure was safety concerns.
"Shutting down stores doesn't make anyone safer – it just makes it harder to pay rent," Josh Crowell, a worker at the Kansas City location said in a statement.
Starbucks Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz said in a leaked video on Twitter in July that the company was shuttering cafes due to safety issues, including crime and homelessness.
Safety was one of the primary concerns Schultz said he heard from employees about their jobs.
"We are facing things in which the stores were not built for," he said in the video. "There are going to be many more (closures)."
Coffee bosses ask for halt to union elections
Starbucks last week accused the federal labor board overseeing union elections at its U.S. cafes of misconduct and asked for elections to be suspended nationwide pending the outcome of an investigation.
The coffee chain said in a letter to National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Chairman Lauren McFerran and General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo that NLRB agents helped Workers United win elections by manipulating the voting process and collaborated to cover up the behavior, according to a copy seen by the news agency Reuters.
NLRB spokesperson Kayla Blado said in a statement the NLRB had well established processes for challenging elections.
"The regional staff – and, ultimately, the Board – will carefully and objectively consider any challenges raised through these established channels," she said.
Workers United said the letter was Starbucks' "latest attempt to manipulate the legal process for their own means and prevent workers from exercising their fundamental right to organize."
A year ago, none of the nearly 9,000 corporate-owned Starbucks locations in the United States were unionized. Now, employees at 216 cafes have voted to join the union, while workers at 46 have voted against unionizing.
Read more from us
'Scandalous behaviour' | Coca-Cola could be next firm to face strike action over 'abysmal' pay row
Starbucks' allegations come amid a growing unionization drive among U.S. retailers, including Amazon, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Lululemon and grocer Trader Joe's.
Labor experts said the point of Starbucks' complaint may be to delay elections, which make them harder for unions to win because they lose organizing momentum due to high employee turnover.
"It's immaterial whether these charges are true or not. The victory is delay," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a University of California Santa Barbara professor and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy.
The letter also helps "to sow distrust about the NLRB process, and maybe scares off even more workers from becoming involved in the process," said John Logan, a San Francisco State University professor who studies anti-union actions.
Starbucks said the misconduct, which the company said it learned from a whistleblower who is a long-time NLRB employee, took place during a union election in Kansas City, Kansas. It said it also believed it had occurred in other regions as well, including the company's hometown of Seattle and in Buffalo in New York state, where the union drive began.
"If the NLRB does not respond by investigating and remedying these types of actions, we do not see how the Board can represent itself as a neutral agency adjudicating unfair labor practice disputes - and elections," Starbucks said in its letter.
Starbucks accused board agents of secretly coordinating with the union to arrange voting in person at NLRB offices instead of by mail ballot, providing confidential details in real time about ballots it had received, enabling the union to influence employees who had not yet voted, covering up what Starbucks termed the "misbehavior" and collaborating with Workers United to boost the number of pro-union votes.
There are many legitimate reasons why a worker would be allowed to vote in person instead of by mail ballot, said Nafisah Ula, organizing director for Jobs with Justice.