A group of House Democrats sent a scathing letter to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz on Friday, accusing the coffee chain of wielding its workplace benefits as a cudgel against unionizing baristas.
“We are closely monitoring Starbucks’ broad strategy of union-busting, intimidation, and retaliation against employees,” they wrote in the letter, which is posted below.
Illinois Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Chuy Garcia spearheaded the missive. The lawmakers asked Starbucks to clarify its new policy reimbursing workers for travel expenses related to abortions following the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision striking down Roe v. Wade.
In a June letter to employees on the new benefit, Starbucks said that “all partners” enrolled in the company health care plan would have access to it. But the letter added that when it comes to unionized stores, “Starbucks cannot make promises or guarantees about any benefits” because the two sides are negotiating contracts.
The lawmakers called on Schultz to “immediately issue clear guidance on” the abortion care benefit. They warned that if the company continued its “scorched earth policy toward organized labor,” they would look into ending any operating rights the company might have on federal properties.
Starbucks told HuffPost in a statement that “our communications have consistently stated that Starbucks will provide all partners who participate in the Company’s healthcare benefits plan access to abortion travel benefits and gender affirming care.”
But the union campaign, Starbucks Workers United, accused the company of being deliberately unclear on whether baristas would still be eligible for the travel reimbursement if their store formed a union. According to Starbucks, travel costs would be covered if an employee couldn’t get an abortion within 100 miles of their home.
“Starbucks purposefully made it so it was confusing whether or not baristas had access to this benefit,” said Casey Moore, a Starbucks worker who handles communications for the union campaign. “People were asking, ‘Do we have it or do we not have it?’ Managers didn’t have the answer. They were saying conflicting things all over the country.”
In its June letter to employees, Starbucks said that “even if we were to offer a certain benefit at the bargaining table, a union could decide to exchange it for something else.”
The union has been locked in a bitter fight with Starbucks while organizing more than 250 stores around the country over the past year. Workplace benefits are one of the main battlefronts.
Starbucks has rolled out a slew of new benefits and wage increases but noted that it could not “unilaterally” implement some of them at unionized stores. Under the law, employers can’t make certain changes to pay and benefits without consulting the workers’ union.
But the union, Workers United, has waived its right to bargain over these new benefits, telling Starbucks to go ahead and apply them to unionized cafes. In response, Starbucks says the benefits must be bargained with other proposals.
Although Starbucks says health care-related benefits are not being withheld, the union says managers have told workers they could lose the benefits by unionizing.
On Tuesday, the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint saying, among other charges, that the company wielded its transgender health benefits as a threat. Starbucks says the gender-affirming care benefit applies to all workers with health coverage, whether they are union or not. Still, the complaint alleges a store manager in Ithaca, New York, warned employees they could lose it if they were to unionize.
The complaint was one of several issued by the board’s general counsel accusing Starbucks of withholding or threatening to withhold benefits to punish union supporters and cool other workers on organizing.
In their letter Friday, House Democrats said Starbucks was using employee health care as a “weapon.”
“While Starbucks has accused various outside groups of interfering with unionization efforts,” they wrote, “it is Starbucks who is weaponizing access to essential health care to intimidate and discourage employees from organizing.”
This story has been updated with comment from Starbucks.