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Starbucks takes issue with a White House union meeting

The coffee giant sent a letter expressing concern that it wasn’t invited to tell its side of the story amid an ongoing battle with labor activists.
Starbucks letter unions
Photo courtesy of Starbucks

Earlier this week, President Biden met with union organizers at the White House. Among them was Laura Garza, a Starbucks employee who is among those organizing to unionize the chain’s coffee shops.

Starbucks took issue with the meeting. AJ Jones, SVP, global communications and public affairs for the Seattle-based coffee giant, sent a letter to the White House expressing concern about the meeting and the fact that it wasn’t invited. “We are deeply concerned that Workers United, which is actively engaged in collective bargaining with us and trying to organize our stores and our 240,00 partners (employees) was invited to the meeting while not inviting official Starbucks representatives to discuss the matter,” Jones wrote.

“We believe this lack of representation discounts the reality that the majority of our partners oppose being members of a union and the unionization tactics being deployed by Workers United.”

The letter is the latest chapter in an ongoing and bitter dispute between Starbucks and union organizers. The dispute has involved accusation of bullying on both sides, including complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. Activists have found an ear in the White House, which has proven to be pro-union.

Indeed, on Friday the board filed a complaint against Starbucks, accusing the company of unfair labor practices in its treatment of employees in the runup to union elections last year in Buffalo.

Workers United said the complaint “sets the record straight” about the company’s actions last year. Starbucks in its response said the allegations were “false.”

Union activists thus far are winning elections.  More than 50 stores have voted to form a union thus far. While that remains a tiny fraction of the total number of Starbucks corporate locations, more than 200 stores are trying to form a union. And the issue has been enough of a thorn in the company’s side that it has brought back Howard Schultz to be the chain’s interim CEO to help address issues that may be frustrating workers enough that they take such steps.

In a statement, Starbucks Workers United said that Garza “spoke on behalf of the partners at over 60 stores across America who share her commitment to each other and to a better company. The White House listened and it’s time for Howard Schultz and (Starbucks Chairwoman) Mellody Hobson to hear these workers and stop the illegal harassment and build a better company with their workers through a fair election process and real collective bargaining.”

The fight between the two sides has extended to pay hikes the company is planning this summer. Starbucks announced this week that it is investing an additional $200 million, mostly in increased pay and benefits, bringing the total workforce investments by the company to $1 billion since September. The newest proposal includes higher pay for more tenured workers.

Yet Schultz also said the higher pay, and other benefits expected to be announced in September, will not be made available to unionized stores, arguing that the company cannot “legally” do that.

Workers United takes issue with that stand. “Starbucks is permitted by law to offer these benefits to workers at unionized stores,” the union said in a statement. “Our bargaining committees will demand that these modest improvements be given immediately to all the partners, and ultimately Howard Schultz’s union-busting maneuvers will not work.” It also promised to file charges with the NLRB.

In his letter to the White House, Jones argued that Starbucks is “consistently ranked as one of the best places to work, best companies for women, best companies for work-life balance and best companies for perks and benefits.”

He also noted that the company paid nearly $132 million in equity compensation on top of their take-home pay and argued that the effort was done “without union representation.”

“All of these actions were made possible by our direct partner relationship without union representation,” Jones said. “Furthermore, our current compensation, benefits and perks are better than any existing private employer collective bargaining agreements we have reviewed from Workers United.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include information about the NLRB's lawsuit. 

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