Starbucks has temporarily closed two stores involved in a union drive in Buffalo, New York, that are leading what could soon become the first campaign to successfully unionize the coffee shop giant.
The company said that the two temporary store closures in Buffalo have nothing to do with the union drive—one is for a remodel and the other is for training new hires. But shutting down locations and separating and fracturing workforces in the middle of a union drive is a standard practice used by anti-unions employers to stamp out union drives.
Starbucks is working with Littler Mendelson, the largest anti-union law firm in the country, on the union drive, and has flown in executives from around the country, including Rossann Williams, the president of Starbucks North America, to hold a series of weekly anti-union meetings at each of its stores in the Buffalo region.
"The timing [of the closures] is suspicious," said Jaz Brisack, a barista from one of the five Buffalo stores that has filed for a union election and is now closed for the remodel. Brisack's store is expected to reopen within a week.
(Two out of the five locations have withdrawn their petitions to unionize in order to speed up the election process for the other three stores.)
"We were supposed to get a refurbishment earlier this year, but it's happening now," Brisack said. "As soon as we petitioned for a union election, they said '[the remodel] is definitely happening.' Their goal is to separate and disconnect us."
"It’s disruption," Richard Bensinger, a former AFL-CIO organizing director who is working on the campaign said. "No one is against the company remodeling their stores. But why now?"
In September, five Starbucks locations in Buffalo filed for union elections under the banner Starbucks Workers United. The National Labor Relations Board is in the process of determining a date for the election and deciding how many workers should be eligible to vote and join the union. Starbucks has stated that all 450 workers in the Buffalo region should be eligible to vote.
The second unionizing Starbucks store in Buffalo has been closed for weeks, and will remain closed indefinitely, and used as a site to train new hires, under a program Starbucks relaunched in May, as cities got rid of COVID restrictions, to respond to labor shortages. Starbucks has closed stores in California and Indiana for training purposes.
"Partners from that store are not losing hours and are being provided times at other stores," Reggie Borges, a spokesperson for Starbucks, told Motherboard.
Borges said the decision to close the location indefinitely and use it as a "training store" was a response to complaints from workers during "listening sessions" the company held in response to the union drive that they weren't receiving enough training—and had been stung by bees for months at the location. He denied that either store closure was related to the union drive.
A Starbucks spokesperson said “we did not stand up listening sessions as a result of the union drive.” However, workers Motherboard spoke to say they had never been invited to listening sessions before and that the content of the listening sessions was specifically about the union drive.
"Asking for better training doesn’t mean we want our store shut down," said Brisack.
In recent weeks, Starbucks regional managers and executives have been in Buffalo stores around the clock, holding required anti-union meetings with small groups of workers, and flooding stores with new hires. Leaders of the union say these tactics have intimidated and threatened workers and created the impression of constant surveillance.
A spokesperson for Starbucks said the captive audience meetings were not required but encouraged, but workers said in multiple cases, they’d been forced to attend.
"Having all these additional people in our store means people are anxious and on edge," said Brisack. "They're in our back room and on our floor with us. It’s changed our ability to talk about the union in a corporate-free environment. Before, we could talk about stuff at work but with all these additional managers it’s a totally different feeling."
Update: This article has been updated to clarify the nature of the listening sessions and captive audience meetings.