Starbucks' union busting campaign is backfiring

At least 100 company locations throughout 26 states have held union drives since August

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published February 24, 2022 5:45AM (EST)

Starbucks baristas and supporters protest outside a Manhattan Starbucks (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Starbucks baristas and supporters protest outside a Manhattan Starbucks (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Starbucks, the multinational coffee giant known for its "progressive" branding, is employing an array of dubious anti-labor tactics as more and more company employees from around the country unionize in protest of poor working conditions. 

Over the past several weeks, Starbucks has inundated workers with anti-union text messages and held "captive audience meetings," where workers are forced to attend management-led lectures about the apparent downsides of unionizing. 

The company has also launched its own website dedicated to dissauding workers from organizing. The site puts special emphasis on the "burden" of union dues and reminds employees that they might not qualify for company benefits under a union. 

Most notably, the company has outright fired employees who have taken part in or led the union effort. Earlier this month, the company sacked seven workers in a Memphis location that is currently mulling union representation, escalating tensions between employees and management. Among those targeted were five out of the six of the store's union committee members, as well as two pro-union employees. The company attributed the firings to "significant violations" of safety and security, according to The Washington Post. 

But Casey Moore, spokesperson for Starbucks Workers United, told the outlet that "if Starbucks had consistently fired people for the violations they fired Memphis workers over, they would have a hard time keeping many people on staff at all."

This week, another pro-union employee, 25-year-old Cassie Fleischer, was fired in one of the company's Buffalo, New York stores. Fleischer, who has already filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), told Newsweek that she was terminated "in retaliation for union activity."

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"I do believe they're targeting union leaders," she said. "There are other union leaders who face the same consequences I faced, but we are confident that I will be reinstated."

Starbucks employees first began organizing back in August, when a cluster of stores in Buffalo formally filed a petition seeking union representation. In response, Starbucks immediately flooded the area's stores with out-of-state corporate executives, who had conversations with workers, held anti-union meetings and even performed menial tasks that had no apparent purpose, casting a pall over the organizing effort. At one point, the company mandated a series of store closures in Buffalo and encouraged employees to attend a speaking engagement by Starbucks' billionaire founder Howard Schultz.

As part of its anti-union campaign, Starbucks has retained thirty attorneys with Littler Mendelson, a law firm notorious for its "union avoidance" services. In filings with the NLRB, Littler has repeatedly argued that union drives should not be held on a store-by-store basis. However, the NLRB has broadly rebuffed this argument, noting the long-held convention of single-store bargaining units in the retail food market.

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Thus far, the company's counteroffensive appears to be failing. At least 100 company locations throughout 26 states have held union drives, with likely more to come. 

"We were inspired by the partners in Buffalo that managed to do something many of us have dreamed of for a long time," Hannah McCown, a Starbucks barista in Overland, Kansas, told The Guardian. "It's something we didn't think was possible, but they really pushed through and showed the rest of us across the nation that we could use our voices and actually unionize." 

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Richard Minter, director of organizing and vice-president of Workers United, called the work-led union effort "a national movement." 

"It's organic in the way it's grown," he told The Guardian, "and it will continue its trajectory to be massive in the coming weeks."

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik was a former staff writer at Salon.

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