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Where The Starbucks Union Stands After Rallies, Proposed Audit

Above photo: Several hundred Starbucks Workers United union members and supporters gathered at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle on Wednesday, March 22, 2023 to protest as incoming CEO Laxman Narasimhan took over from Howard Schultz. Genna Martin/Crosscut.

As a new CEO takes over, employees of the Seattle-based coffee giant are taking their demands to the street.

“Stop union-busting and bargain in good faith.”

Waving banners and blaring music, hundreds of Starbucks union supporters rallied Wednesday outside the coffee chain’s Seattle headquarters as part of a national show of force ahead of an annual shareholder meeting amid stalled contract negotiations.

“No contract, no coffee,” demonstrators chanted as they encircled the red brick corporate offices.

Shareholders were to vote Thursday on a proposed third-party review of the company’s labor practices following a flood of union-busting allegations from workers. In a letter from Starbucks Workers United, the union urged shareholders to approve the audit, which would not be binding but could pressure the company to respond. The result has not yet been released.

Wednesday’s Seattle rally, also filled with SEIU, UFCW, UniteHere and other union members, was one of many organized by Starbucks workers across the country, who held their own protests, including strikes and rallies. Workers United announced more than 100 stores planned to participate, including three in Seattle.

“One year later, one year louder,” the crowd chanted, signs bobbing overhead.

More than a year ago, unionization began surging through Starbucks stores, starting with the pioneering Buffalo, N.Y., location that became the first unionized store in December 2021. But movement has stalled at the bargaining table as contract negotiations drag on and unfair labor practice complaints stack up.

“Today is about celebrating that we’re here still, over a year later,” said Hailey Cribbs, a barista at a unionized store in Bellingham, Wash. “I think if we’re trying to get anything out of today, it’s just to be seen and heard by the company and hopefully by the new CEO.”

Cribbs traveled down as part of a bus group from Bellingham and Everett to join the rally, calling for a new beginning as previous Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz stepped down from a temporary return to company leadership. 

A recent Crosscut investigation explored the negotiations between Starbucks and the union, and examined the role of the National Labor Relations Board in adjudicating hundreds of related unfair labor practice complaints. That story revealed that many new unions face a long and complex path from initial election to signing a first contract. 

A Starbucks spokesperson questioned the Union’s numbers on stores participating in strikes or rallies Wednesday in an email response, and disputed allegations that the company has violated any collective bargaining rights.

“Rather than publicizing rallies and protests,” the email stated, “we encourage Workers United to live up to their obligations by responding to our proposed sessions and meeting us in-person to move the good faith bargaining process forward.”

Laxman Narasimhan was set to become CEO April 1. But on Monday, Starbucks announced he would take the reins early from Schultz, who returned as CEO in April 2022 amid a growing wave of unionization he’s tried to fend off.

Before his first board meeting on March 23, Narasimhan released a letter to baristas vowing to continue Schultz’s reinvention plan, unveiled last summer, which says the company will include new benefits, focus on long-term hiring and retention and increase pay. He also plans to spend a half-day a month behind the counter working in stores.

Cribbs and other demonstrators called on Narasimham to show up at the bargaining table to listen and negotiate.

“We know what’s best for us,” Cribbs said. “No company could ever know what’s best for its workers on the floor.”

The slow road toward a contract has been hard on workers – especially in an industry plagued with high turnover – who have yet to see long-term benefits from unionizing. The New York Times recently reported parallel frustrations among organizers at Amazon, but local demonstrators voiced their commitment to following through on the process.

“Having strikes [and] meeting with other community members really keeps us going and keeps our hopes high that something will come out of this,” Cribbs said. “And we’ve already seen small victories come out of unionizing.”

Cribbs pointed to gains on the long-sought ability to accept credit-card tipping and a relaxation of dress codes — benefits so far rolled out mostly to non-unionized stores.

“If I quit and get another job, there’s still going to be issues at that job,” Cribbs said. “Unionization doesn’t just need to happen at Starbucks. But I think every job could use a union, they deserve to have that protection and collective action on their side.”

As of mid-March, 364 stores had taken a union vote, and of those, 293 joined the Workers United union, according to the National Labor Relations Board. At least 20 more locations have a vote planned.

After the initial rush catalyzed by the Buffalo store unionizing, on average about 11 stores per month have filed union petitions from mid-2022 to March 2023, according to NLRB data.

Four security guards blocked the entrance to Starbucks headquarters as demonstrators approached Wednesday. Workers peeked out of windows above, watching and filming the crowd. Some ventured out to order lunch from the food trucks in the parking lot and take a closer look.

Gwen Williamson, a former shift supervisor for a cafe in Bellingham, addressed the crowd: “We won our election in December and immediately after that, shift supervisor hours were cut, putting our eligibility for Starbucks health education benefits at risk.”

Williamson told those who had gathered that she had been unjustly terminated after she led the union charge at her store and called off several shifts at the last minute due to flood damage that left her apartment unlivable.

Williamson and the Union later filed an unfair labor practice complaint over her termination. The NLRB has listed 513 open or settled charges against Starbucks or Littler Mendelson P.C., the law firm representing the company, as of mid-March. The NLRB has brought 82 of those complaints before judges.

Board judges have already issued several decisions finding the company has violated labor laws – including unlawful termination, threatening employees for union activity and refusal to bargain.

The company has been ordered to rehire 22 Starbucks employees at cafes across the country so far, according to the NLRB, including one in Ann Arbor, Michigan and seven in Memphis, Tennessee.

Williamson hopes to eventually be one of those rehired employees, she told Crosscut.

“I would have no problem going back,” she said, “especially because the people I work with are so amazing.”

The company has consistently denied any wrongdoing, and has filed 107 of their own unfair labor practice charges against the union. The NLRB has not issued any complaints stemming from those charges.

Schultz is currently scheduled to testify before a Senate committee next week. He originally declined to appear before the committee, offering to send other company executives, but reversed course after Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, threatened to subpoena him.

“We look forward to continuing to work with the Committee to foster productive dialogue. As part of those efforts, we will endeavor to provide a deeper understanding of our culture and priorities,” the company wrote in a March 7 email to Sanders agreeing to send Schultz to testify.

Update: This story now includes an email response from a Starbucks spokesperson.

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