Starbucks faces mounting pressure from unions

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Starbucks faces mounting pressure from unions

More than two years into a campaign that has unionized more than 350 Starbucks stores, the company is facing mounting pressure from union officials and activists who say it has illegally retaliated against workers and resisted contract negotiations.

Starbucks, which denies violating labor laws, has responded with mixed signals about its willingness to engage with the union. The company announced early last month that it was seeking to restart negotiations at unionized stores, only one of which has held bargaining sessions over the past six months. Yet the company continues to resist a union demand that some workers be allowed to take part in bargaining sessions remotely to enable more to participate.

Several Starbucks locations in Southern California have unionized, including stores in Anaheim, Montclair, LaQuinta and Los Angeles, among others.

Starbucks has taken steps to address workers’ complaints about being overstretched in stores. But it and the union have sued each other in a dispute arising from social media postings about the war in the Gaza Strip.

A report on Starbucks’ labor practices, prompted by a shareholder vote and released last month, criticized the company for falling short on commitments it made to respect union activity, though it found “no evidence of an ‘anti-union playbook.’”

“There are green shoots of promising behavior right now,” said Jonas Kron, chief advocacy officer of Trillium Asset Management, which makes investments to further environmental, social and governance goals and had a roughly $31 million stake in Starbucks as of September. But, he added, there is also “ongoing concerning behavior.”

The persistence of the organizing effort is one source of pressure on the company. The union campaign flagged in the second half of 2022, as election filings dropped to about 12 a month on average from more than 50 a month in the first half of the year. The monthly filings ticked up last year and averaged roughly 20 from October to December.

Other challenges are more recent. In late November, a coalition of unions that includes the parent of Workers United, which represents Starbucks workers, nominated three candidates for seats on the company’s board.

The coalition, known as the Strategic Organizing Center, is an investor in the company and cited “potentially irreversible damage” to Starbucks’ brand resulting from anti-union actions. It noted that the National Labor Relations Board had issued dozens of complaints against the company tied to hundreds of accusations of illegal behavior, including a failure to bargain in good faith.

Starbucks denies the accusations, noting that it has proposed more than 500 bargaining sessions with the union, and the cases are still being litigated. The company has said it will review the proposed board nominees and is “committed to constructive dialogue.”

Experts in board fights said the campaign appeared serious. All three candidates were senior government officials, largely under Democratic presidents, and the coalition has retained prominent firms to aid in the fight.

“This is not a publicity stunt, I think,” said Kai Liekefett, a partner at Sidley Austin who specializes in defending boards against shareholder campaigns. “They’ve hired very sophisticated advisers.”

Liekefett said a vote at Starbucks’ last shareholder meeting, in which investors backed a resolution that prompted the company to commission the assessment of its respect for labor rights, suggested that investors could be open to a board challenge tied to labor issues.

At the same time, grassroots actions by union supporters have sought to exact a price on board members and the company over its posture toward unions.

Students at Georgetown University, Boston University and UCLA have waged campaigns to remove Starbucks stores from their campuses. Union supporters interrupted a forum at UCLA featuring Andrew Campion, a Starbucks board member, to heckle him for “condoning the injustices that Starbucks workers face.”