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Starbucks warns employees of a downside to unionizing

Wages and benefits could be frozen for more than a year, management told baristas waiting to vote.
Starbucks unions
Photograph: Shutterstock

In another indication that Starbucks is taking a harder stance on efforts to unionize the chain, the coffee giant has alerted employees of a store in Olympia, Wash., that their wages and benefits could be frozen for more than a year if they opt to organize.

A letter was sent by management to every staff member of the Cooper Point unit to inform them only the employees of that one store will vote later this month on whether to unionize. Starbucks had asked the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to broaden the scope to include the baristas of all stores in the area, a change that would have made the election more difficult for Starbucks Workers United to win.

The home office has made the same request in many of the 19 union elections that have been held across the chain since November. Starbucks has been turned down each time.

It has also lost all but one of those elections.

The letter states that management would prefer the employees say no to organizing. But if they vote to unionize, “benefits and wages will be frozen while the parties negotiate the [employment] compact.”

That process could take a year or more, the communication states, and there’s a chance no deal can be reached.

The corporation wasn’t exaggerating. After five of Burgerville’s 40-plus units voted to organize, the process of hammering out a new employment contract took 3.5 years. 

The unit that began Starbucks’ string of union defeats, in Buffalo, N.Y., has been working on a new labor agreement since early this year.

The letter was sent March 21 but was not divulged until the website Vice.com obtained a copy.

The communication is further evidence that Starbucks is changing its response to the union drive, which has now spread to 225 stores, according to the labor advocacy group More Perfect Union.     

Amid that surge in activity, Starbucks announced that Kevin Johnson would retire in two weeks and longtime brand steward Howard Schultz would assume Johnson’s responsibilities until a permanent successor was named.

After the staff of the Buffalo unit aired its intentions to unionize last August, members of Johnson’s team traveled to stores whose baristas professed an interest in organizing.  Pro-union employees said they were banding together to ensure their voices would be heard by Starbucks’ leadership. But instead of viewing the visits by executives as opportunities to be heard, workers blasted the drop-ins as espionage missions aimed at derailing the movement.

In some instances, formal complaints against corporate were lodged with the NLRB.

As soon as Schultz took over from Johnson, Starbucks replaced its general counsel and brought aboard a chief strategy officer, Frank Britt.

Schultz continued the listening tours. During one meeting with a group of baristas, he reportedly snapped back in anger at a participant who criticized management and their response to the union drive. “If you hate Starbucks so much, why don’t you go somewhere else?” Schultz was reported to have responded.

In a blog post last week, Schultz accused the union advocates of focusing on “conflict, division and dissension” to achieve their ends.

He also complained that unions have been disrupting “collaboration sessions” that can foster positive employer-employee relations.

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