Starbucks broke the law by closing unionized Ithaca store, labor officials say

Federal labor officials have filed a sweeping new lawsuit against Starbucks alleging the coffee chain retaliated against union workers by shutting down a popular location in Ithaca, New York, among other charges.

A regional director of the National Labor Relations Board said the union’s claim that the June store closure was intended to deter workers from unionizing was correct. In the complaint filed with council on Tuesdaythe manager said Starbucks’ actions were illegal and demanded that the company be ordered to reopen the site.

The manager also accused Starbucks of threatening to withhold workers’ benefits and raises if they unionized; selective enforcement of labor policies against union supporters; discipline or dismiss militant workers; and fail to negotiate in good faith.

In addition to reopening the store, the manager said Starbucks should return the workers “whole” for their lost wages and offer the reinstatement of five employees.

Unless the company and board officials reach a settlement, the allegations will be brought before an administrative law judge.

Starbucks now faces more than 20 complaints with the NLRB, which arbitrates disputes between unions and employers. Officials say the company has repeatedly broken the law by firing union-friendly employees, cutting their work hours and offering wage increases and other benefits to those who refuse to join a union.

Starbucks has denied retaliating against union supporters following other accusations by labor board officials. A company spokesperson told HuffPost that Starbucks negotiated with the union about closing College Avenue and agreed to transfer baristas to other locations at their current pay rates.

“We regularly review the partner and customer experience in all of our stores, and when operations require, we will open or close a store in the normal course of business without regard to union activity,” the company said. society.

Starbucks has faced a huge wave of unionization in recent months. Workers at more than 200 stores across the country have voted to join the Workers United union since the first election in the Buffalo, New York, area last December. The company fought the organizing effort from the start.

“I think they wanted to scare the partners into unionizing… This is the perfect opportunity to make an example of it.”

– Evan Sunshine, barista at College Avenue Starbucks in Ithaca, New York

The Ithaca case revolves around one of the most serious accusations from NLRB officials: that Starbucks is deliberately shutting down certain sites to suppress union campaigning. Closing a workplace and causing the loss or transfer of workers may make other workers think twice about trying to organize.

It is illegal to close a workplace in order to avoid a union or discourage unionization (although it is legal if the company destroys the entire business). Starbucks maintained that its store closings were not in retaliation for the organization.

Baristas at the College Avenue store near Cornell University unionized in April, along with two other Starbucks locations in the college town. A week later, they went on strike to protest a broken grease trap which they said had overflowed, causing a disgusting mess and unsafe working conditions inside.

On June 3, Starbucks announced it would permanently close the College Avenue store, partly blaming the decision on the troublesome grease trap. Baristas were given a week’s notice before closing.

Evan Sunshine, who worked at the College Avenue store, said Starbucks gave employees an “exhaustive list” of reasons why the store should be closed, but he believes there was a motivating factor.

“They closed the store because we went on strike,” said Sunshine, a 20-year-old from Cornell’s labor program. “I think they wanted to scare off the partners from unionizing. It’s a whole town that’s unionized, three stores all within a few miles of each other. [The workers] are very frank. This is the perfect opportunity to set an example.

Workers pick up signs during a rally for efforts to unionize Starbucks stores on June 11, 2022, outside the State Capitol in Denver.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

In the complaint, the regional manager alleges that Starbucks retaliated against Sunshine by refusing to transfer him to another store or allow him to enroll in the company’s “Coffee Master” program.

Sunshine recently started working at another Starbucks in Ithaca. He spent the summer interning in Washington, DC, and worked at a unionized Starbucks store in Northern Virginia.

Some of the College Avenue workers landed at nearby Starbucks locations, but others took jobs with other employers, according to Sunshine. The union provided financial assistance while the baristas funded more for those who found themselves unemployed.

Although Starbucks closed several stores amid the union campaign, Starbucks United Workers says College Avenue was the first to be closed following a successful union election. The workers had voted 19 to 1 in favor of the union.

The union alleges that Starbucks fired dozens of organizers across the country because of their activism, though the company denies the allegations. A federal judge recently ordered the company to temporarily reinstate seven workers in Memphis, Tennessee, who were fired earlier this year, saying there was ‘reasonable cause’ to believe the layoffs were retaliation . Starbucks unsuccessfully appealed this decision.

In the Ithaca case, Sunshine said he and his colleagues are encouraged that the NLRB regional director has found merit in their claims.

“We all believed for months now that we were being retaliated against and treated incredibly badly. … Now we have an institution telling us it was completely unfair and illegal,” he said.

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