Negotiations between Starbucks and its employees' union are set to begin

Simultaneously, the coffee chain's U.S. Supreme Court case commences Tuesday. It challenges certain of the NLRB's regulatory policies.
The first step in the negotiations will be setting negotiation rules. | Photo: Shutterstock

The first step in hammering out labor contracts between Starbucks and the union representing more than 10,000 store-level employees is expected to begin this week, nearly three years after the organizing drive began with a single store.

The sessions would coincide with hearings this week before the U.S. Supreme Court of a legal action Starbucks has brought against another frequent adversary in the matter, the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB. Starbucks has petitioned the nation’s highest court to clarify and standardize the criteria federal district courts should use when deciding whether to uphold a Board’s order to an employer.

The NLRB, the federal agency that regulates union organizing, has directed Starbucks in several instances to reinstate employees who claim they were fired because they favored unionizing. The chain maintains that the workers were dismissed for failing to meet the performance standards of their positions.

The contract negotiations anticipated for this week will focus initially on setting the framework for the actual collective bargaining process. Once that foundation is set, the back-and-forth will shift to the substance of new contracts, covering such nuts-and-bolts issues as new wage rates, scheduling policies, employee benefits and store-level safety measures.

A Starbucks spokesperson indicated that those discussions will also address outstanding litigation.

It is not clear how that second phase of the negotiations will proceed. Starbucks Workers United, or SWU, has insisted since announcing its formation in August 2021 that each store whose staff votes to unionize be treated as a distinct collective-bargaining unit. The NLRB has affirmed that position.

However, the parent organization of SWU has been empowered to speak on behalf of all 10,000-plus members.  

Each staff will presumably be allowed to customize the contract for their unit. One suggested alternative to the store-by-store approach has been hammering out one union-wide agreement as a template and then allowing each store’s staff to accept or reject it for their unit.

Either way, the logistics could be complicated. Starbucks Workers United, or SWU, intends to involve 150 rank-and-file members in the actual process of negotiating the collective-bargaining framework. Another 250 baristas will serve as what the union describes as a caucus, a chorus of sorts that will offer feedback and suggestions to the 150 frontline negotiators.

The 400-member team was selected in turn by 7,000 members of SWU.

In addition, Workers United is empowered to speak on behalf of the whole 10,000-plus class of members. 

However, the parties have agreed not to issue updates to the media and the public on the negotiations as they proceed.

The involvement of rank-and-file union members has already been a source of conflict between Starbucks and the SWU.

The coffee chain had invited representatives of SWU more than 500 times to a sit-down, according to executives. In the more than 100 instances where a meeting was arranged, the union reps either walked out or didn’t show because they insist the negotiations be broadcast to the SWU membership at large, and Starbucks refused, the chain officials said. The company maintains that turning the sessions into an open forum will inhibit the negotiators from acting with ease and complete candor.

To date, 413 Starbucks stores across 43 states have been designated as collective bargaining units by the NLRB. According to the SWU, the number is 425.  

The union is an affiliate of Workers United, which in turn is under the umbrella of the nation’s second largest labor union, Service Workers International Union, or SEIU. The Starbucks operation was formed in August 2021 after the staffs of three cafes in Buffalo, New York, alerted then-CEO Kevin Johnson of their intention to organize.


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