In response to Starbucks’ decision to close 16 of its cafes, a group of employees from the union organising employees at different Starbucks branches around the U.S. has filed a labour complaint.

According to In These Times, Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), which has recently spearheaded efforts to unionise more than 130 U.S. outlets, has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging unfair labour practises. The Seattle employees who made the allegation said that the company’s decision to close the 16 outlets was an act of revenge and union-busting.

Starbucks said in two letters that it has decided to close the stores located in Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. because of safety concerns written by the staff at the locations mentioned in incident reports. According to Starbucks, the accusations included anything from drug use by customers and members of the public to racism directed at employees and mental health crises. 

If Starbucks truly cared about its partners’ safety, it would bargain about ways to ensure their protection, not displace workers by closing stores.

Marina Multhaup, Legal Counsel, SBWU

One of the unionised stores that will be shut down on 31 July is the 505 Union Station Starbucks branch in Seattle, where an employee posted a notice on the door of the store saying the company is “unfair” and “disingenuous.”

A previous report by Bartalks reported that the coffeehouse chain giant is infamous for being unwelcoming of union movements. Howard Schultz, the current Starbucks CEO, once said that “pro-union workers don’t really understand the situation and how unionisation might affect the future.”

In contrast, a Starbucks spokesperson said, “We’re empowering local leaders, who have emphasised repeatedly that they care deeply about creating a safe and welcoming environment in the community. The company is renewing its commitment to safety, kindness and welcoming in our stores.”

The need to negotiate solutions to handle the safety issues raised by Starbucks employees at some locations has contributed to the push for unionisation among them. Starbucks’ Debbie Stroud and Denise Nelson, who are in charge of the company’s U.S. operations, wrote a letter to staff members on Tuesday informing them that the company would give managers the authority to restrict seating, scale back operations and close restrooms to deal with safety concerns.

In 2018, the company’s policy on restriction access to restrooms was reviewed following an incident at the Philadelphia Starbucks at 18th and Spruce, where two black men were detained at the store for refusing to order anything and insisting on waiting for their friend. One of them was also denied access to the restroom as the pair had not bought anything from the store.

It wasn’t just the refusal to give access, but the way in which the store manager handled the situation that gave rise to protests and widespread critical media coverage. The company subsequently apologised publicly and committed to improving access to restrooms.

The company’s open-door practices at its outlets have resulted in unionised workers urging the management to find solutions and increase security, according to Josie Serrano, a Los Angeles SBWU organiser and barista, 

So if we were able to have a fair shot at bargaining with the company over our safety concerns, we wouldn’t need to close the store because we would be able to add more security to these stores.

Josie Serrano, Organiser, SBWU Los Angeles

SBWU’s labour complaint seeks injunctive relief for workers at the 16 affected Starbucks locations, which would expedite a court order as the case proceeds in the coming months. A similar situation is playing out in New York, where workers at two unionised stores in the Buffalo area are requesting injunctive action because they believe management there violated labour laws.

In December 2021, a Starbucks Store in Buffalo, New York was the first to form a union with 27 votes in favour of it and 19. Shortly after, a union at a second store in the same city was approved by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The company has been fighting each unionisation vote with everything it has, including some ethically questionable tactics.

Photo by Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

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