Federal labor officials have filed a new and sweeping complaint against Starbucks alleging that the coffee chain retaliated against union workers by shuttering a popular location in Ithaca, New York, among other charges.
A regional director for the National Labor Relations Board found merit in the union’s claim that the June store closure was meant to dissuade workers from organizing. In the complaint filed at the board on Tuesday, the director said Starbucks’ actions were illegal and asked that the company be ordered to reopen the location.
The director also accused Starbucks of threatening to withhold benefits and wage increases from workers if they unionized; selectively enforcing work policies against union supporters; disciplining or firing workers who were activists; and failing to bargain in good faith.
In addition to reopening the store, the director said Starbucks should have to make workers “whole” for their lost wages and offer reinstatement to five employees.
Unless the company and board officials reach a settlement, the allegations will be litigated before an administrative law judge.
Starbucks now faces more than 20 complaints at the NLRB, which referees disputes between unions and employers. Officials say the company has repeatedly broken the law by firing pro-union employees, cutting their hours and offering pay hikes and other benefits to those who decline to unionize.
Starbucks has denied retaliating against union supporters following other charges from labor board officials. A company spokesperson told HuffPost that Starbucks negotiated with the union over the College Avenue closure and agreed to transfer baristas to other locations at their current pay rates.
“We routinely review the partner and customer experience in all our stores, and when operations necessitate, we will open or close a store in the regular course of business without regard to union activity,” the company said.
Starbucks has faced a huge wave of organizing in recent months. Workers at more than 200 stores around the country have voted to join the union Workers United since the first elections in the Buffalo, New York, area last December. The company has fought the organizing effort from the beginning.
“I think they wanted to scare partners out of unionizing … This is the perfect opportunity to make them an example.”
– Evan Sunshine, barista at the College Avenue Starbucks in Ithaca, New York
The Ithaca filing revolves around one of the most severe charges coming from NLRB officials: that Starbucks is deliberately closing certain locations to crack down on the union campaign. Shuttering a workplace and causing workers to lose their jobs or be transferred can make other workers think twice before trying to organize.
It is against the law to shut down a workplace in order to avoid a union or discourage unionization (although it is legal if the company nukes the entire business). Starbucks has maintained that its store closures were not in retaliation for organizing.
Baristas at the College Avenue store near Cornell University unionized in April, along with two other Starbucks locations in the college town. A week later, they went on strike to protest a broken grease trap they said had overflowed, causing a disgusting mess and unsafe working conditions inside.
On June 3, Starbucks announced that it would be closing the College Avenue store for good, attributing the decision in part to the troublesome grease trap. The baristas were given one week’s notice of the closure.
Evan Sunshine, who worked at the College Avenue store, said Starbucks gave employees an “exhaustive list” of reasons why the store should be closed, but he believes there was one motivating factor.
“They closed the store because we went on strike,” said Sunshine, a 20-year-old junior in the labor program at Cornell. “I think they wanted to scare partners out of unionizing. This is a whole city that unionized, three stores all within a couple miles of each other. [The workers] are very outspoken. This is the perfect opportunity to make them an example.”
In the complaint, the regional director alleges that Starbucks retaliated against Sunshine by refusing to grant him a transfer to another store or allow him to enroll in the company’s “Coffee Master” program.
Sunshine recently started working at a different Starbucks in Ithaca. He spent the summer interning in Washington, D.C., and working at a unionized Starbucks store in Northern Virginia.
Some of the College Avenue workers landed at nearby Starbucks locations but others took jobs with other employers, according to Sunshine. The union provided some financial assistance while baristas crowdfunded more for those who were left unemployed.
Although Starbucks has shuttered several stores amid the union campaign, Starbucks Workers United says College Avenue was the first to be closed following a successful union election. The workers had voted 19-1 in favor of the union.
The union alleges that Starbucks has fired dozens of organizers around the country due to their activism, though the company denies the claims. A federal judge recently ordered the company to temporarily reinstate seven workers in Memphis, Tennessee, who were fired earlier this year, saying there was “reasonable cause” to believe the firings were retaliatory. Starbucks appealed that ruling unsuccessfully.
In the Ithaca case, Sunshine said he and his co-workers are heartened that the NLRB regional director found merit in their claims.
“We all thought for months now that we were retaliated against and treated incredibly poorly. … Now we have an institution telling us that it was completely unfair and illegal,” he said.