Starbucks Union Demands Company Bargain A National Contract

The president of the union that’s been organizing Starbucks stores has a message for the coffee chain: Come to the bargaining table — and make it just one table, not hundreds.

The union Workers United has been trying to negotiate first contracts for the more than 300 Starbucks locations that have formed unions since late 2021. But since those stores unionized one by one, the coffee chain has maintained that each store should negotiate its own contract.

Lynne Fox, the union’s president, told HuffPost that workers want to consolidate the talks so they can start making headway on an accord. Workers have gotten nowhere with the company even though many unionized more than a year ago, she said.

“The fastest way to do it is in a national framework at one table and bargain these universal issues concurrently,” she said.

Fox said Starbucks should agree to a broad contract that sets a national minimum wage, “fair scheduling” procedures, guaranteed minimum hours and an agreement for union elections moving forward, among other provisions. Regions and individual stores could then add supplemental agreements if they choose to.

But Starbucks said Workers United should stick to negotiating individual contracts since the union has been organizing stores one by one.

“This is a deliberate attempt to distract from Workers United’s failure or inability to bargain for nearly 300 single stores, as they successfully litigated and enforced on Starbucks,” Andrew Trull, a company spokesperson, said in an email. He added that the company has made progres on a contract with workers at a single store in Pennsylvania who joined the Teamsters last year.

None of Starbucks’ roughly 9,000 corporate-owned U.S. stores had union representation until Workers United started organizing them in 2021. As groundbreaking as the election victories have been, the hardest part was always going to be negotiating a first contract. On average, it takes well over a year for a new union to bargain one, and in many cases unions never succeed due to litigation and employer delays.

I’m so proud of these workers. I really admire them. I think they’re shocked that the company they love is treating them so viciously.Lynne Fox, president of Workers United

Prosecutors at the National Labor Relations Board have accused Starbucks of a litany of unfair labor practice charges, including refusing to bargain with workers at 163 stores. The NLRB’s board in Washington has already ruled in one case that Starbucks illegally refused to bargain with workers at its Reserve Roastery in Seattle. Prosecutors also say the company broke the law by insisting workers bargain in person, rather than with a Zoom option as the union has proposed. 

“They have not agreed to a single one of our proposals, nor have they counter-proposed to any of our proposals,” Fox said. “The company has had 15 of our core proposals for seven months. They have not signed off on a single line or sentence or countered on anything.”

Starbucks said it had proposed “more than 423 single-store bargaining sessions” but that the union had set preconditions for those meetings, such as remote bargaining for workers, that the company would not agree to. The company maintains that negotiating over Zoom is equivalent to recording the sessions.

″[W]e believe that in-person bargaining is not only required by federal law, but it will achieve the best outcomes for our partners,” Starbucks said.

On Tuesday, Fox sent a letter to Starbucks’ general counsel, Zabrina Jenkins, calling on the company to get serious about a nationwide deal. “Starbucks has employed increasingly outrageous delay tactics that have amounted to an unacceptable repudiation of your 8,000 workers’ right to bargain a contract,” she wrote. 

Fox noted that during his recent testimony before the Senate, former CEO Howard Schultz said that negotiating so many contracts at once has created “significant complications and obstacles in the collective bargaining process.”

Schultz blamed the union for the problem, noting that Workers United petitioned for elections store by store, rather than on a regional basis, as Starbucks proposed. The union would have been less likely to win larger elections since it would have diluted their support in stores that were strongholds.

“We now have to be put in a position to negotiate individual stores one by one across the country and set up individual meetings,” Schultz lamented.

But Starbucks does not have to negotiate the contracts separately — it could bargain them under a national framework to expedite the process and cut down on the number of lawyers involved. It has chosen not to.

“I can only speculate [as to Starbucks’ motives], but my guess is to purposely complicate the process and elongate the process,” Fox told HuffPost. “If you want to bargain in good faith, that’s not the way you do it.”

Starbucks workers strike outside a shop in Brooklyn on November 17, 2022.
Starbucks workers strike outside a shop in Brooklyn on November 17, 2022.

Starbucks workers strike outside a shop in Brooklyn on November 17, 2022.

In reality, a company in Starbucks’ position has little incentive to reach a deal that could encourage more stores to organize. Employers can drag out the process to undermine the broader union effort and make workers believe organizing would be a waste of time. It is illegal for an employer to bargain in “bad faith,” but the penalties for doing so are notoriously weak. 

Trull insisted the company has bargained in good faith all along. “We remain engaged and ready to bargain in-person,” he said.

The union’s leverage with Starbucks grows with each store it organizes — Workers United has won 315 elections, or 81% of those held, according to the NLRB — increasing the odds of the union compelling Starbucks to a single bargaining table to reach a deal. But the pace of organizing has slowed since early 2022, and the union will have to work to hang on to the stores it already organized.

Workers at three union stores in New York recently filed petitions to hold decertification votes to purge the union from those workplaces, though it’s not clear those efforts will go anywhere. That’s another incentive for employers to stall on a contract — the workforce turns over and union supporters are replaced by union opponents.

Fox said the union anticipated such fights from the beginning.

“That was part of, I’m sure, the big plan,” she said of Starbucks. “So that people would move on, there would be turnover, or people just couldn’t earn a living and would have to leave to find another job. We’re prepared for that.”

NLRB prosecutors have filed 94 complaints against Starbucks, accusing the company of illegally firing union supporters, shutting down stores where workers were organizing and withholding raises from unionized workers, among other allegations.

So far, administrative law judges have ruled that Starbucks broke the law in at least 14 separate cases.

“I’m so proud of these workers. I really admire them. I think they’re shocked that the company they love is treating them so viciously,” Fox said. “Starbucks could have taken this moment to really be the industry leader and to really validate its workers, and they just chose not to.”