Widening and Deepening the Battlefield at Starbucks

Coffee Ideas and Issues Unions Workers

            Pearl River     Workers continue to have the momentum at Starbucks.  This is getting more and more interesting.

The NLRB counted ballots in Mesa, Arizona, the medium-sized Phoenix suburb, and the union forces polled 25 – 3 with a couple of indeterminate ballots challenged.  There are now 100 stores that have filed petitions and are in some stage of moving towards elections.  Several more stores including in Buffalo, where the original victories were recorded, have balloted and are waiting for the boxes to be opened, which should happen shortly, as the NLRB brushes aside company objections.

The NLRB issued a decision recently that would seem to settle one of the big obstacles the company has tried to throw in the road.  The board ruled that single-store elections were an appropriate unit, dispatching the company’s argument that the elections needed to be market-wide.  This is a common company strategy, and often successful, but only in our experience if the company can prove that there has been a regular and consistent interchange of workers in order to sustain an argument that there is a “community of interest,” rather than just a one-off emergency situation. Under US labor law there is not a definitive test of a bargaining unit, because the language defines it as “an” appropriate unit, not “the” appropriate unit, allowing discretion.  The current NLRB board is leaning more towards the workers than the company than has been the case in many recent years.

Starbucks is fighting aggressively.  A half-dozen workers were fired in Memphis for example.  They continue by all reports to argue about unit size and voting lists.  They move workers in and out, retraining and orienting new workers in uninfected, non-union locations before moving them into balloting sites.  They are also shifting managers back and forth while injecting corporate players into the mix.  All of these are fairly classic moves, but, encouragingly, they aren’t working yet, and the momentum is remaining with the workers and the union.

A report in the Times noted that some investors are getting skittish about the amount of resources the company is devoting to their anti-union work and questioning whether they could damage their brand and customer base by being too aggressive.  Comments by a management side lawyer from the mega-firm Jones Day were interesting and accurate.  He counseled a strategy to block the union from being able to build enough density in a market to leverage the company in bargaining.  Another management lawyer wondered out loud how many elections the company could lose before being forced to change strategy.  Some even wondered if Starbucks shouldn’t resign itself to being partially union.  On one level this seems premature to me, but even if the company is not quite flying a white flag yet, the fact that others are pushing them to find one is a good sign for the union.

Free advice is always worth exactly that, but my two cents continues to be that all of us need to help get workers in motion to both widen the battlefield and support increasing the density in markets where petitions have already been filed.  We need customers and union-supporters to advocate across the coffee bar to more workers to sign cards and move forward in more cities.  If you’re going to Starbucks, ask if you can “get union with that cup?”  Ask if they’ve filed, telling the barista you want to drink your cup at a union store, if not this one, is there one around?

Anything that can keep pushing the momentum forward increases the odds of beating the company.  More and more, it’s starting to look like blood is in the water.  We all need to step up and support these workers.