Starbucks loses another round in its struggle to halt unionization

Three more stores in Buffalo, N.Y., will vote at the end of the month on union representation. In all, organizing activities are underway in more than 20 stores.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Starbucks failed again last week to halt the store-by-store unionization of the chain, with federal regulators giving the go-ahead for the staffs of three more units to vote on being represented by an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

The ruling by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) came as employees at a Starbucks in Mesa, Ariz., were receiving their mail-in ballots on union representation. The board’s decision means four stores are currently in play.  Those are in addition to two branches that have already organized a union.

Meanwhile, the staffs of at least four more units have alerted Starbucks management or federal authorities that they have begun the organizational process. The communication from one, in Baltimore, asks the Seattle home office to voluntarily recognize the union given the success workers have had elsewhere in winning representation and a right to collectively bargain. It set a deadline of Jan. 19 for management’s decision.

The other cafes beginning the organizational process are in Memphis, Tenn., and Richmond and North Chesterfield, Va.

With the recent steps, about 25 Starbucks stores are now known to be facing active unionization efforts. Those are in addition to the two unionized stores in Buffalo, N.Y. Workers at a third Buffalo cafe voted against a union affiliation in early December.

The three stores that were green-lighted on Friday to hold a vote are also located in Buffalo. Each unit will conduct its own mail-in election, though simultaneously.

As it did earlier in Buffalo and then in Mesa, Starbucks argued that any union vote should be open to all employees in the market, saying workers often float from one store to another. In all three instances, the NLRB has denied the request for an expanded vote, saying labor particulars such as wage rates are still decided on a store level.

A broadened vote would be harder for a union to win because more workers would have to be convinced that union representation and a 1.8% deduction from their paychecks are in their best interests. In the three units where a vote was held, the balloting extended to a few dozen employees, and just a few votes determined the outcome.

In every Starbucks unit where an organization effort has come to light, pro-union staff members said they were seeking more strategic input on the brand’s direction and the operation of their respective units, not on driving up wages. Nancy Wilson, the NLRB’s acting administrative director for the region that includes Buffalo, said the starting wage in that market has hit $15.97 an hour.

The NLRB said employees of the three Buffalo stores cleared for an election should start receiving their mail-in ballots on Jan. 31. Starbucks had asked the NLRB to require in-person voting rather than a mail vote. But Wilson noted in her ruling that many of the  workers eligible to vote do not own cars, making on-site balloting more difficult.

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