Union busting | Starbucks survives union complaint, admits need for progress, and faces fresh allegation all on same day

Starbucks survives union complaint, admits need for progress, and faces fresh allegation all on same day

Starbucks reaffirmed its commitment to the freedom of collective bargaining on the same day the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) lodged another official complaint of illegal labor practices.

It’s been another busy fortnight of employee relations for Starbucks. On 13 December, the federal labor agency alleged that Starbucks closed 23 stores, eight of which were unionized at the point of closure, without prior notice to Workers United, and with the intention of stifling further union activity.

This fresh claim of union busting arrived on the same day Starbucks successfully fended off another complaint from the NLRB. A third party inquiry addressing the incumbent complaint concludes that there were no clear signs of interference with the freedom of Starbucks employees to engage in collective bargaining activity.

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Starbucks, in an official statement released on 15 December 2023, refutes this complaint and says it bases decisions to open or close stores based on annual reviews.

The significant developments follow a formal letter on 8 December, from Sara Kelly, Chief Partner Officer, Starbucks, to Lynne Fox, President, Workers United, attempting to repair the strained relationship between the two groups.

“We are proposing that bargaining resume with a set of representative stores in January 2024," requested Kelly.

Starbucks survives initial claim of "union busting"

Starbucks appointed labor relations expert Thomas Mackall in March to conduct an independent inquiry following complaints from the NLRB.

The inquiry ran from July to September and brought mixed results. It concludes that whilst Starbucks did not deliberately engage in union busting, poor handling of growing unionization caused negative consequences for the company.

Mellody Hobson, Independent Chair, Starbucks, and Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, Chair of the Board’s nominating and corporate governance committee, report in an official statement alongside Mackall’s inquiry that “Starbucks has had no intention to deviate from the principles of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.”

Other findings included no evidence of an alleged “anti-union playbook.” Hobson and Kundstorp also share that Starbucks has achieved progress in areas including the creation of a labor and employee relations team.

The letter cites negligible differences between disciplinary charges or actions at unionized and non-unionized stores.

…But fresh NLRB complaint confirms need for further progress

The complaint, again from the NLRB, is “the latest confirmation of Starbucks’ determination to illegally oppose workers’ organizing” according to Mari Cosgrove, a Starbucks employee, in a statement issued through Workers United.

It’s unsurprising, then, that Hobson and Kundstorp’s statement also concludes that “there are things the company can, and should, do to improve its stated commitments."

With the timely confirmation of this fresh complaint from the NLRB, Starbucks has significant work to do to address the quality of its labor relations practices, its relationship with unions such as Workers United, and its growing reputation as a “union-buster.” Hobson and Kundstorp produce a series of conclusions, including:

  • Building on the recent outreach to Workers United to resume contract bargaining that has stalled in recent months, with the view to creating a constructive relationship

  • Improving the frameworks and standards that Starbucks managers use to assess partner (employee) actions and issue discipline

  • Training management on communications to enhance the consistency of operations across stores

The letter also references Mackall’s conclusion that Starbucks executives may need to redress their interpretation and application of the company’s Global Human Rights statement.

Employee compensation

If NLRB’s complaint is held up, Starbucks faces the prospect of re-opening 23 locations, including union and non-union stores.

NLB spokesperson Matthew Hayward confirms the labor agency also hopes to force Starbucks to rehire all employees and compensate the workers for their lost pay and benefits.

If this letter suggests the urgent need for improvement in Starbucks’ labor relations practices; the latest complaint confirms it.

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