Starbucks Says Workers Lack Right to Unionize at Store Level


(Bloomberg) -- Starbucks Corp. workers shouldn't have the right to vote for a union on a cafe-by-cafe basis, the coffee chain told the U.S. labor board amid efforts by workers in Buffalo, New York, to organize.

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"The facts and the law do not support holding individual and separate elections," Starbucks attorney Alan Model said in his opening statement Thursday during a hearing held by the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees unionization in the U.S.

Model argued that, because of similarities among the stores, any labor vote should include employees at all 20 of the company's Buffalo-area locations -- meaning the union would need backing from a majority of participating workers across the region in order to win.

His comments follow August petitions by employees at three Starbucks locations in the Buffalo area to join Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. The union has signaled it has support at additional stores but isn't currently seeking elections there. The campaign calls itself "Starbucks Workers United."

The Starbucks proposal for a regional vote would "depart from decades of precedent," the union's attorney, Ian Hayes, said via email.

A labor board officer is hearing arguments on whether to have separate votes at each of the three stores or hold a larger vote. A bigger group could derail the labor campaign by flooding the election with voters with whom the union hasn't been in contact.

'Presumptively Appropriate'

In comments at the opening of the proceedings Wednesday, the hearing officer, Thomas Miller, said that bargaining units composed of the employees at a single location "are presumptively appropriate" under labor-board precedent, so the burden will be on Starbucks to prove why that shouldn't be the case in Buffalo.

"In general, unions prefer smaller units because it is easier to obtain and maintain support among a smaller group of employees," University of North Carolina law professor Jeffrey Hirsch, a former NLRB attorney, said in an email. "Employers prefer larger units for the exact same reason."

In order to overcome the labor board's usual presumption that an election among just one location's employees is legitimate, companies employ strategies like "centralizing the control of labor relations" among various locations to prove that a larger voter pool is more appropriate, said Mark Pearce, who was chairman of the NLRB under President Barack Obama.

"The employer is likely to argue that the single site lacks local management autonomy to make key decisions, that there is common day-to-day supervision of employees at the multiple work sites and frequent employee interchange," Pearce, who now directs the Workers' Rights Institute at Georgetown's law school, said in an email.

Starbucks is pushing for a marketwide vote because it wants to be inclusive, said Reggie Borges, a spokesman for the company. He said that workers often pick up shifts at different locations within regions, so any one store's action would affect others.

"It wouldn't be fair to the partners in this market to not have a voice in whether to unionize or not," he said. He added that the company's position was "consistent with" a letter Starbucks Workers United sent to Starbucks before filing for elections, which said that the union's "organizing committee includes Starbucks partners from across the Buffalo region."

Hayes, the union attorney, said Starbucks is mischaracterizing the letter, which called on Starbucks to respect the organization efforts and refrain from obstructing them, and didn't specify how large any bargaining unit should be. He said the company didn't address the union's concerns in the letter.

New York state's second-largest city has been a hotbed for progressive activism in recent months. India Walton, the first socialist major-party mayoral nominee in decades, recently won the city's Democratic mayoral primary, making her the overwhelming favorite to win the office.

Along with Starbucks, the past year has seen the launch of new high-profile labor campaigns at nonunion companies like Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc. Nationwide, the Covid-19 pandemic sparked activism among so-called essential workers, while President Joe Biden's election spurred a new push to pass reforms that would restrict management tactics, such as mandatory antiunion meetings, that have become mainstays of U.S. organizing fights.

(Updates with union response in 13th paragraph.)

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