Representatives of Starbucks walked out of five collective bargaining sessions with union members on Monday, and the company indicated it wouldn’t resume bargaining if the union continued to allow workers to join remotely.
Starbucks workers in Buffalo, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Louisville, and Lakewood, California, all of whom won their union elections earlier this year, were set to meet with the company Monday to begin negotiating contracts.
But workers say that after they introduced themselves and colleagues who were physically present and joining via Zoom—some of whom are members of what the union calls its national bargaining committee—Starbucks’ representatives, from both the company and management-side law firm Littler Mendelson, abruptly left and later said they wouldn’t return. At the root of the problem is a disagreement on who should be allowed to participate in the sessions, and how they can join.
“It’s just these little games they’re playing with us and trying to stall,” Ann Arbor shift supervisor Alyssa Coakley told VICE News.
In Buffalo, for example, workers bargaining for a contract at the first unionized store in the nation told VICE News that at the beginning of the meeting they read a statement from Workers United declaring that it would have members of the bargaining team who were unable to attend “appear remotely,” though in a role of “listening and observing.” The statement also promised that none of the participants, “including those who appear remotely,” would record the meetings electronically.
“They said, ‘We’re not agreeing to this, we’re going to go caucus,’ and then they left the room,” Michelle Eisen, a barista at the Buffalo store who sits on the bargaining committee, told VICE News.
Eisen said that Starbucks representatives finally re-entered the room more than two hours later and provided the company’s position, which included a refusal to bargain while members had dialed in virtually. They left a minute later, according to Eisen.
A video posted to the union’s Twitter and Tiktok accounts shows a company representative telling union members from the Elmwood store to “read our position” and that the company would bargain “if you’re ready to proceed in-person without virtual.”
“You have virtual right there, and that is not what we agreed to,” the representative told one Starbucks worker.
Starbucks said that its representatives remained on-site and were willing to bargain if the union met their demand to bargain in-person only. “It’s disappointing that Workers United would, minutes before bargaining begins, try to create confusion and potential delays,” a Starbucks spokesperson told VICE News in an email.
“Starbucks remains willing to move forward today with agreed upon in-person meetings, which would benefit all sides—including the Starbucks partners whose interests are affected by these store-specific sessions,” the spokesperson said Monday.
Though the store on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo voted to unionize last December and more than 240 have followed suit, it’s taken nearly a year for bargaining to begin in earnest. Nationally, the time it takes from winning a union to ratifying a contract is an average of 465 days, according to Bloomberg Law—a statistic that has featured heavily in Starbucks’ messaging to its employees as it opposes union efforts.
But last month, the company said it wanted to begin negotiating contracts this month. There are more than 40 sessions currently scheduled between October and November.
Eisen told VICE News that those who attended bargaining in-person included four representatives from the Buffalo store as well as six from other unionized stores in the Western New York area, and several employees whom the union alleges were fired for their organizing activity. (The National Labor Relations Board has accused Starbucks of repeated retaliation, including in western New York, but the company continues to deny all allegations.)
But the session also included members who had joined via Zoom from unionized stores such as one in Richmond, Virginia, who are part of what the union refers to as its National Bargaining Committee.
Representatives from the four other stores around the country that were bargaining Monday described similar situations.
“Starbucks’ lawyers are refusing to move forward on the bargaining because we were trying to Zoom in folks who weren’t able to make it,” Chicago shift supervisor Teddy Hoffman told VICE News. Hoffman later said via text that the company’s representatives came back into the room multiple times but refused to bargain if others were able to join via Zoom, and that they “closed out the session with no results” and no idea when the next bargaining session would happen.
Eisen also said the company’s representatives were half an hour late to the meeting, and that bargaining only got underway at 9:32. The company disputed that characterization, telling VICE News in an email that the representatives were waiting outside the conference room for chairs to be added.
In Ann Arbor, Coakley said the company’s representatives arrived on time, but only left after a couple of minutes after they saw a laptop open with Zoom. “They immediately got angry and said they would not hybrid bargain with us,” Coakley said. The “session” ran from 9 a.m. through 4:30 p.m., but it didn’t even get to the proposal stage, Coakley said.
“We knew Starbucks would not be happy [with hybrid bargaining], but we knew we were in the right,” Coakley said. “It’s just upsetting that something as small as a Zoom call would send them over the edge and they wouldn’t even entertain our proposals.”
Eisen described the company’s position as “pitiful and lukewarm,” but said it would “galvanize” workers.
“If they had been prepared, they would have maybe anticipated this, but they didn’t,” Eisen added. “Instead they took three hours to go into another room and type up a one-page statement.”
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