The Feds Are Getting Serious About Stopping Starbucks’ Alleged Union Busting

The National Labor Relations Board just asked for a “nationwide cease and desist order” barring Starbucks from firing employees for union activity.
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Protestors demand the reinstatement of a former employee outside a Starbucks in Great Neck, New York, demanding the reinstatement of a former employee, August 15, 2022. (Thomas A. Ferrara/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

The National Labor Relations Board petitioned a federal court in Michigan Tuesday for a “nationwide cease and desist order” barring Starbucks from firing its employees for union activity

It’s the fourth time this year that the NLRB has asked a federal court for an injunction ordering the company to rehire fired pro-union employees and stop committing alleged unfair labor practices.

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The NLRB has made similar efforts in Buffalo, Phoenix, and Memphis, but requesting a national prohibition on firing employees for supporting union efforts marks a significant escalation in the labor board’s attempts to rein in Starbucks’ alleged union-busting. 

Starbucks Workers United, the union representing Starbucks workers, has accused the coffee giant of illegally firing more than 150 employees as retaliation for supporting the union, though the company has repeatedly and consistently denied those claims. 

On Tuesday, the NLRB’s regional director in Detroit, Elizabeth Kerwin, asked the Eastern District of Michigan to prohibit Starbucks from “discharging employees at any of its stores in the United States and its territories for supporting the Union or any other labor organization,” and “interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees” from their rights afforded under the National Labor Relations Act. 

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“Given the number and pattern of Starbucks’ unfair labor practices here and elsewhere, particularly discharges, a nationwide cease-and-desist order is necessary to halt Starbucks’ systemic campaign of retaliation,” the NLRB wrote in a memorandum in support of the preliminary injunction. 

A Starbucks spokesperson denied the allegations in an email to VICE News.

“We respect the right of all partners to make their decisions regarding union issues, whether they favor or oppose representation—and in all union dealings, including collective bargaining, we will always engage honestly and in good faith,” Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull said. 

“No Starbucks partner has been or will be disciplined or separated for supporting, organizing or otherwise engaging in lawful union activity.”

A former Starbucks manager in the Buffalo area testified under oath in August that he was encouraged by higher-ups to scrutinize the record of a longtime pro-union employees to find “something in there we can use against her,” and to ensure a manager was always working and able to discourage employees from talking about the union. Starbucks has denied the those claims.

The petition filed Tuesday also asks the court to order the company to rehire Hannah Whitbeck, a shift supervisor in Ann Arbor and leader in Starbucks Workers’ United efforts in Michigan who was fired in May before her store’s election. Starbucks had accused Whitbeck of leaving a coworker alone on the floor (Whitbeck told VICE News she left because her scheduled shift was over, and the incident involved a dispute with another coworker), but last month, an NLRB administrative judge ruled that Starbucks had “acted with animus” toward Whitbeck and illegally fired her for her union activity. 

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Starbucks Workers United said in a statement provided to VICE News that the petition for a nationwide injunction is a “huge victory for workers.” 

“Workers across the country are organizing to make Starbucks a better company and place to work,” the union said. “Yet Starbucks has responded by threatening, bullying, and firing over 150 union leaders across the country.” 

“We look forward to seeing Starbucks held accountable and look forward to winning our contract.”

The NLRB has issued a number of complaints against Starbucks this year, and has accused the company of retaliation—including firings, suspensions, selective scheduling, and more—against pro-union employees all over the country, including in western New York, Phoenix, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Tennessee. In Phoenix, a federal judge rejected the NLRB’s petition to force Starbucks to rehire three employees the labor board said were fired for organizing a union.

But in September, seven employees in Memphis who were fired earlier this year won their jobs back after a federal court ordered the company to reinstate them and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling. The Memphis store, at the intersection of Poplar Ave. and Highland St., is one of more than 250 Starbucks locations whose employees have voted to unionize this year.

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