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Oct. 6, 2022

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Starbucks says labor board helping pro-union workers in Seattle, elsewhere

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SEATTLE — Eight months into the largest unionization push in the company’s history, Starbucks says the federal agency in charge of managing union elections has been unfairly helping workers unionize.

Starbucks said Monday that officials with the National Labor Relations Board aided pro-union workers in an election in the Kansas City area, asserting that similar misconduct happened in Seattle and Buffalo, New York. The company requested the agency suspend all mail-ballot elections in the U.S.

The Seattle-based coffee giant claims labor board officials arranged for in-person voting in NLRB offices during mail-in elections, gave the Workers United union confidential information about vote counts and collaborated with the union to increase pro-union votes.

Relations between Starbucks and the fledgling union movement have grown increasingly acrimonious since December, when workers in Buffalo became the first in decades to form a union at a corporate-owned Starbucks store. Howard Schultz, now serving his third stint as the company’s CEO, has long contended Starbucks workers don’t need union representation and recently told a New York Times interviewer that the company doesn’t believe “a third party should lead our people.”

Starbucks workers throughout the Puget Sound region have held one-day strikes to protest the company’s treatment of employees. Some of Starbucks’ most prominent stores in Seattle, including those in Madison Park and several on Capitol Hill, have unionized in recent months, while others, such as the store at First Avenue and Pike Street, are in the process of doing so. The NLRB is holding hearings to determine if that downtown store will still be able to unionize.

The NLRB is the independent federal board that adjudicates labor disputes nationwide. It investigates unfair labor practice complaints and certifies union elections. The five-member board, which was unable to form a quorum during much of former President Barack Obama’s time in office, has been lauded by pro-union activists and cast as anti-business by some labor opponents since President Joe Biden’s pick to head the board, General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, assumed the post in July 2021.

In an email, NLRB press secretary Kayla Blado said the NLRB doesn’t comment on open cases. Blado said, though, that any objections to NLRB decisions need to be formally offered through “established channels.”

“The agency has well-established processes to raise challenges regarding the handling of both election matters and unfair labor practice cases,” Blado said. “Those challenges should be raised in filings specific to the particular matters in question.”

Starbucks said in the letter addressed to the NLRB’s chair and general counsel that an NLRB whistleblower reported misconduct to the company.

“If the NLRB does not respond by investigating and remedying these types of actions, we do not see how the Board can represent itself as a neutral agency adjudicating unfair labor practice disputes — and elections — in a manner that is fair, honest and proper,” attorneys for Starbucks said in the letter.

Starbucks Workers United, the group seeking to unionize U.S. Starbucks stores, accused the company of trying to “distract attention away from their unprecedented anti-union campaign, including firing over 75 union leaders across the country, while simultaneously trying to halt all union elections.”

“Ultimately, this is Starbucks’ latest attempt to manipulate the legal process for their own means and prevent workers from exercising their fundamental right to organize,” the group said in a statement to The Associated Press.

The way the NLRB handles cases and makes decisions largely depends on who is in the White House, as the president selects the board’s leadership, said Jerome Rubin, an attorney with Williams Kastner’s Seattle office who previously served as a chief trial attorney for the NLRB. While the Trump administration’s appointees may have favored employers, Rubin said, the Biden administration can be considered more union- and employee-friendly.

Still, the NLRB will always try to act with neutrality, said Rubin, who worked at the board for over five years. Starbucks has the right to raise the concerns, which can be investigated and judged.

As the NLRB’s responsibilities include making sure employees can choose to unionize, the “complaint that the NLRB is ‘helping workers organize’ does not make a lot of sense,” said Elizabeth Ford, a distinguished practitioner in residence at the Seattle University School of Law.

“Sometimes employers get confused about this, thinking that the board’s job is to facilitate a contest between the employer and the union over whether there should be a union,” Ford said. “That’s not it at all; the Board’s job is to allow employees to choose for themselves.”

At the same time, she said, agency officials cannot interfere with employees’ choices by offering nonpublic information.

As of last week, the NLRB is processing 286 unfair labor practice complaints related to Starbucks stores across 28 states — 284 against Starbucks and two against Workers United, which represents the individual store unions. Nine complaints were filed in Kansas City, where the company claims officials acted improperly. Two were in Seattle.

About 200 Starbucks stores have unionized, the NLRB reported. And last month, the union representing two closing Seattle stores reached an agreement with the company, a first since the unionization efforts began. Among other assurances, Starbucks agreed to provide union workers reassigned to new stores with an equivalent number of hours.

The company announced last month it would appeal the union votes certified by the NLRB at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Capitol Hill, saying the elections method excluded about a third of the workers there.

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