Starbucks, Starburst

NLRB Starbucks Unions

            New Orleans        When a company has seen its workers in more than 350 locations vote that they want to be represented by a union, you would normally think that they might have gotten a message that there’s trouble in a whole lot of river cities.  Even when the company is huge and supposedly has more than 9300 corporate locations in the United States, as Starbucks has, most of us would still believe that they would pay some mind to the fact that maybe when over 9000 of its workers are represented by a union now, they should sort the thing out somehow.  If all of that seems reasonable and a bit like common sense to most of us, we are clearly not qualified to work in the upper levels of management at Starbucks.   They have not come to an agreement with the union, Workers United, SEIU, in a single location to date.

Recently, there was a curious item in the news where the company said it had reached out to the union asking to resume negotiations, after there being no bargaining for last six months.  The union responded, “If the company’s efforts at dialogue over the last few days are sincere, we are ready to talk.”  I hate to be cynical, but I have to wonder if the company’s overture was really in good faith or was just trying to tactically upstage the release of an internal report demanded by a stockholders’ resolution on whether the company was operating under an anti-union playbook?  The vaguely independent report was done by a management-side lawyer they picked.  He claimed there was no such playbook, but even this guy conceded they had “deep problems” and the constant smoke coming from “alleged unfair firings,” management “promises,” and worker harassment seemed to more than hint at real fire.

For its part, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a truly independent body, seems to have no doubt.  There may not be a playbook, but anti-union animas is part of the company’s DNA at this point.  The record establishes that,

The labor board has issued more than 100 complaints covering hundreds of accusations of illegal behavior by Starbucks, including threats or retaliation against workers involved in union activity and a failure to bargain in good faith. Administrative judges have ruled against the company on more than 30 occasions, though the company has appealed those decisions to the full labor board in Washington. Judges have dismissed fewer than five of the complaints.

In the latest complaint issued by the NLRB, they argue that Starbucks closed 23 stores in order to blunt union activity.  In a huge step, the Board demanded as a remedy that the company be forced to reopen those locations.  Starbucks claims that this is just business as usual.  Yeah, right.

The best-case argument for the company at this point is that local managers are out of control and the company is a mismanaged, undisciplined mess when it comes to their workforce.  The more likely case is that they are simply guilty as charged.  There’s just too much smoke for the fire not to be blazing.

Does this mean the union can win, finally?  Hmmm…that’s a tougher call.  There’s still no sign of any Starbucks surrender or even that they would accede to any union demands in staffing, wages, schedules and other critical issues.  Worse, the delays all help the company.  Where there was always high turnover behind the counter, the last two years have exacerbated that situation, thereby weakening the union’s support on the floor.  The union has the certification, but invariably is fighting to keep worker support, especially given the unique spread out and long-distance organizing model that wrought the election victories from individual worker initiative, rather than from traditional organizers on the ground.

For those of us who support workers and justice on the job, Starbucks’ star has burst.  Does that mean a boycott would work?  I don’t know.  On airport concourses, I never fail to be amazed at the long lines for service and a cup of really not so good coffee.  Enough is enough, though.  We’re past the point where it seems right to darken their door as long as they refuse to bargain in good faith and pay attention to their own workers.