Starbucks workers react as they speak to the media after union vote in Buffalo, New York, December 9, 2021.
Lindsay DeDario | Reuters
The regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Buffalo, N.Y., issued a complaint Friday accusing Starbucks of 29 unfair labor practice charges that included over 200 violations of the National Labor Relations Act.
The complaint stems from claims made by Starbucks Workers United against the company in Buffalo, where the union organizing effort began in August.
In the complaint, viewed by CNBC, the NLRB accuses Starbucks of interfering with, restraining and coercing employees seeking to unionize in various ways. The regional office of the independent federal agency said the coffee giant threatened and intimidated workers by closing down stores in the area, reduced workers’ compensation, enforced policies against union supporters in a discriminatory way, engaged in surveillance and fired workers, among other alleged violations.
The complaint also notes high-ranking Starbucks officials made “unprecedented and repeated” visits to Buffalo and held mandatory anti-union meetings, noting that leaders, including CEO Howard Schultz, had promised an increase in benefits if workers refrained from organizing. Buffalo has been at the center of the union drive. The city is home to the first store to vote yes on organizing in December and sparked a movement that spread across the country.
“The complaint, issued by the NLRB Regional Director in Buffalo, involves important issues,” Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges said in a statement to CNBC. “However, Starbucks does not agree that the claims have merit, and the complaint’s issuance does not constitute a finding by the NLRB. It is the beginning of a litigation process that permits both sides to be heard and to present evidence. We believe the allegations contained in the complaint are false, and we look forward to presenting our evidence when the allegations are adjudicated.”
Since the movement started last year, more than 50 Starbucks stores have voted to organize with Workers United, and nearly 250 have petitioned to hold votes across the country. At least five have voted no on organizing. Starbucks has nearly 9,000 locations across the country.
The NLRB regional office’s complaint encompasses months’ worth of charges the union made against the company. Starbucks will have an opportunity to respond to the accusations.
To remedy the allegations, the NLRB’s general counsel seeks reinstatement of workers and to have either Schultz or Rossann Williams, executive vice president of Starbucks North Americas, hold a meeting with employees, union and government representatives present. At the meeting, which is to be videotaped and distributed, an official would read a notice of employee’s rights.
“Starbucks has been saying that no union-busting ever occurred in Buffalo. Today, the NLRB sets the record straight. The complaint confirms the extent and depravity of Starbucks’ conduct in Western New York for the better part of a year,” Starbucks Workers United said in a statement. “Starbucks will be held accountable for the union-busting minefield they forced workers to walk through in fighting for their right to organize. This Complaint fully unmasks Starbucks’ facade as a ‘progressive company’ and exposes the truth of Howard Schultz’s anti-union war.”
Starbucks did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Schultz, who is working in his third stint as Starbucks CEO, has been an active and vocal opponent of unionization in the past. The company recently announced pay and training investments for workers, but said those benefits could not automatically go to unionized stores without separate bargaining discussions.
“The union contract will not even come close to what Starbucks offers,” Schultz told analysts on the company’s earnings conference call on Tuesday.
The baristas’ union push received more exposure Thursday when the White House hosted leaders from organizing campaigns at Starbucks and other companies such as Amazon. Starbucks wrote to the White House asking for a meeting of its own, calling the event “deeply concerning,” as it says the majority of its partners oppose being in a union.
Starbucks Workers United has filed more than 100 unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks, while the company has filed two against the union in return. Starbucks Workers United also notched a recent win as NLRB officials petitioned a federal court to force the company to bring back activist employees who say they were removed due to union campaigning.