Group offers to help Starbucks workers kick out their union

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is also apprising baristas on how to stop being charged union dues without risking their jobs.
Starbucks Workers United has decided it'd prefer a chainwide labor contract. / Photo: Shutterstock

A third party has come forward to frustrate the union looking to organize Starbucks, simultaneous with an about-face in the labor group’s strategy for wresting wage increases and other concessions from the coffee giant.

The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation indicated last week that it would offer legal aid to employees of unionized Starbucks units if they desire to oust Starbucks Workers United (SWU) from their store. The nonprofit group said it is already working with baristas employed by the Starbucks Roastery in New York City and Starbucks cafes in upstate New York to reverse the union’s election successes, a process known as decertification.

The Foundation indicated that it is also providing SWU members with information on their rights under federal and state union rules to disengage personally with the union. The options vary according to state regulations, but could extend to resigning union membership and ceasing to pay dues without fear of losing a position within a union shop.

“If you work in a state that lacks Right to Work protections, union officials with a monopoly bargaining agreement can unfortunately force you to pay some union fees in order to keep your job,” reads a legal notice made available by the group to unionized Starbucks workers. However, there are still limitations on how much and under what circumstances you can legally be required to pay.”

A number of petitions for a decertification vote have already been filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal regulator of union organizing processes, by employees of the first Starbucks stores to opt for representation by the SWU.

The agency did not grant the requests, citing its policy of holding off on follow-up elections for at least a year after a business’ workers vote to unionize.

“As many Starbucks locations pass the one-year anniversary of unionization, Starbucks employees are now able to hold votes to remove the union, a right many are now seeking to exercise,” Foundation President Mark Mix said in a statement.

The involvement of a third party spares Starbucks from being sanctioned by regulators and tarred as a union-buster in resisting the organizing and negotiation efforts of the SWU. The company has not hid its preference for remaining union-free, but has learned how carefully it needs to navigate NLRB rules and policies in holding that position.

During a public interview with an editor from The New York Times, then-CEO Howard Schultz admitted he’d prefer Starbucks stores not be unionized. That comment alone drew regulatory scrutiny and considerable accusations that Schultz was looking to illegally bust the union.

The involvement of the Foundation comes as Starbucks and the SWU exchange accusations and snipes over the reasons for contract negotiations being stalled. At the insistence of union organizers, each of the Starbucks unit whose staffs voted to organize would essentially be treated as a stand-alone union chapter, each with its own labor contract. As of Friday, that total was 315 stores.

When the union drive began, Starbucks had insisted that a whole market vote yea or nay on organizing and for those workers to function as a lone collective bargaining unit if they opted to unionize. Management pointed out that it was common for baristas within a specific geographic market to shift from store to store, so a broader work agreement was more appropriate. Organizing a larger number of employees also lessened the chances of enough employees being convinced that SWU representation was in their best interest.

The NLRB sided with the SWU and directed each Starbucks store to vote individually on unionizing. Each would then have to hammer out its own labor agreement and submit it for crewmember approval.

Efforts to negotiate a contract store-by-store have failed to date. The SWU has accused Starbucks of purposely thwarting any back-and-forth, often by walking out of the negotiations. The coffee chain says it refuses to have the sessions broadcast to rank-and-file SWU members, asserting that some negotiators from the chain have been beset at home by outraged baristas.

Last week, the SWU reversed itself and called for one national labor contract across all of the 305 Starbucks units that have been certified as union shops by the NLRB (10 units are still awaiting formal approval but have voted to organize). Union President Lynne Fox said that approach would be the fastest way to land a new contract for Starbucks’ union employees.

The chain has also reversed its opinion, saying that unit-by-unit negotiations are the best way to proceed.

In the meantime, many of the employees who originally voted to unionize have left Starbucks due to the chain’s usual turnover rate. A new crop of employees may not be as sympathetic to the SWU, which could work in management’s favor if decertification votes are held.

The SWU is asking for a bump in pay for all employees to at least $20 an hour, with annual raises of 5% plus a cost-of-living adjustment.

The list of demands also includes automatic enrollment of all employees in a 401(k); health insurance funded completely by Starbucks; at least four scheduled hours per week; paid breaks of at least 15 minutes, or unpaid breaks of up to an hour; 10 paid holidays; vacation time; and the establishment of a system for resolving conflicts between workers and management.

Starbucks has not responded publicly to the Right to Work Foundation’s announcement.

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