Workers at a Starbucks that’s trying to unionize received a letter from store management in March telling them that “benefits and wages will essentially be frozen” until a bargaining agreement is reached if they vote to unionize. The letter, obtained by VICE News, also strongly implies that the company intends to drag out the collective bargaining process.
“Generally speaking, if the union gets the votes needed to represent you, good faith negotiations can often take more than a year—if a contract is reached at all,” states the letter, dated March 21 and signed by store managers in Olympia, Washington. “If a union is certified, benefits and wages will essentially be frozen while the parties negotiate the contract.”
“We will continue to share information, including how to vote by mail, over the next few weeks,” the letter adds. “I hope you’ll consider voting no.”
The letter, a portion of which was previously posted to the union’s Instagram account, echoes recent comments by interim CEO Howard Schultz saying that the company will expand benefits for most of its workforce—except for unionized employees.
In an online meeting with store leadership this week, Schultz told them that the company is preparing to expand benefits but that such changes couldn’t unilaterally be applied to unionized employees, according to the Wall Street Journal. “People who might be voting for a union don’t really understand, let alone the dues they are going to pay,” Schultz reportedly said.
“That’s starting to get close to an improper threat not to bargain in good faith if there’s a union,” Jeffrey Hirsch, a labor law professor at the University of North Carolina Law School in Chapel Hill, said of the Olympia letter.
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“This is where the existence of other unlawful activity, such as terminations, can be important,” Hirsch told VICE News. “Put another way, if this letter was the only thing at issue, Starbucks is probably OK. But if this store in particular is seeing misconduct, it puts this letter in a different stance.”
Workers at the Olympia store went public with their effort to unionize in February, with an open letter signed by 19 employees and others who wished to remain anonymous. In the letter, the employees said they’re “devoted to creating a safer, more rewarding, and more democratic environment for current and future Starbucks employees.”
The same workers went on strike for one day in March, protesting the letter and alleging the store’s leadership was retaliating against employees with hour reductions, intimidation, and more. Olympia Starbucks workers who spoke with VICE News said the company began more stringently enforcing dress code and time and attendance policies after the unionization effort went public.
“I’ve seen [co-workers] wear stuff they’ve been wearing for months and months, and nobody ever cared," Madison Barriga, a 24-year-old barista who’s worked for Starbucks for nearly four years, told VICE News. “And then the union started popping up, and all of a sudden, they started giving verbal warnings about dress code and more warnings about time and attendance.”
The letter also includes ballot instructions for workers as well as a notice of meetings being added to the schedule “to support you, answer questions, and ensure you know how to vote.” Pro-union Starbucks workers across the country have said they’ve been subjected to “captive audience” meetings, a key tactic companies use to fight unionization.
So far, more than 200 Starbucks stores have filed petitions to unionize, and 20 stores have voted to join Starbucks Workers United, while just two have voted against.
Starbucks has repeatedly denied that it’s retaliating against employees who want to unionize.
“We cannot give benefits to partners in unionized stores unilaterally,” Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said of the letter in Olympia. “We would first have to bargain with the union to do so. That’s what the letter conveys. It’s the law.”
Hirsch told VICE News that while Schultz is technically correct that Starbucks would no longer be able to alter the wages and benefits for unionized employees on its own, there’s no prohibition on the company offering such improvements to unionized workers.
“A company is not permitted to unilaterally change working conditions without first engaging in bargaining with the union,” Hirsch said. “But Starbucks could certainly negotiate with the new unions to provide those benefits. Moreover, if what he said could be viewed by reasonable employees as a threat that Starbucks will provide lower benefits to employees who decide to unionize, that’s unlawful.”
Workers at the store voted on whether or not to join the union this month, and results will be tallied on April 29.
“I don’t think that the union-busting tactics are exclusive to Howard Schultz. It’s kind of just the way it is when you live in late stage capitalism,” 27-year-old barista Billie Adeosun told VICE News. “But I think that this movement is going to be bigger than just coffee companies. I think it’s a really good step toward maybe changing the fabric of society a little bit.”
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