Starbucks' Offer to Resume Contract Talks Comes with Some Serious Fine Print

Starbucks says it wants to bargain. Its behavior suggests otherwise.

Steven Greenhouse

A worker holds a sign reading: We're on ULP strike!
Former employees and supporters join unionized Starbucks employees as they carry signs in support of a strike, outside of a Starbucks store in Arlington, Virginia, on November 16, 2023. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Starbucks received lots of favorable press when it told its workers’ union that it wanted to resume contract talks. The move was a much-needed PR boost for a company whose recent battles with the union have stirred bad press and contributed to sinking stock prices. A top Starbucks official wrote to the union’s president on Friday saying the company wanted to end the bargaining impasse — one caused by the coffee chain’s refusal to hold any negotiating sessions for more than six months. As a result of that refusal, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has repeatedly accused Starbucks of failing to bargain in good faith. 

But there’s a very important caveat in Starbucks’ Friday letter that calls into question whether it is truly sincere about wanting to return to the bargaining table. In that letter, Starbucks continued to reject the idea of hybrid negotiations – the reason it has repeatedly blocked negotiations for many months. Sara Kelly, Starbucks’s vice president and chief partner officer, insisted in the letter that negotiations be conducted without video or audio feeds.” In other words, Starbucks’ message is, We’re saying we want to resume negotiations, but we will do so only if the union surrenders to us on this important hybrid bargaining issue.” 

That doesn’t seem like a conducive way or sincere way to resume contract talks.

There’s a very important caveat in Starbucks’ Friday letter that calls into question whether it is truly sincere about wanting to return to the bargaining table.

Starbucks has halted all bargaining by refusing to participate in hybrid negotiating sessions in which some unionized baristas would meet face to face with Starbucks’ bargaining team while other baristas would join the bargaining session via Zoom. The union, Starbucks Workers United, has insisted on hybrid bargaining, saying that some baristas simply don’t have the time or money to attend bargaining sessions in person. The union also repeatedly points out that in early 2022 Starbucks and its lawyers conducted some bargaining sessions via Zoom because of the pandemic, but the company later reversed itself and refused to do bargaining that includes any Zoom participants. 

The union complains that Starbucks’ refusal to engage in hybrid bargaining is yet another obstacle that the company has erected to delay ever reaching a first contract. The first Starbucks stores unionized in Buffalo two years ago, yet not one of the more than 360 unionized shops across the United States has reached a first contract.

Starbucks has irked the union by insisting that individual contracts be negotiated for each of the more than 360 unionized stores, which means that it is insisting on more than 360 sets of negotiations. Participating in 360-plus separate sets of negotiations would be long, arduous and expensive for the union – indeed the union asserts that Starbucks is insisting on this to drag things out. The union has reluctantly agreed to these store-by-store negotiations, but to speed up and simplify matters, it would much prefer to negotiate one overall national contract that might have some variations — perhaps higher pay at Starbucks stores in more expensive cities or provisions requiring stepped-up security precautions and safety training at some locations.

The union wants some of its key negotiators to sit in on all or most of the negotiations for the 360-plus stores, so that they can help ensure that the main provisions make their way into each store’s contract. But that amount of travel would be exhausting, expensive and nearly impossible for any individual to do in person. That’s one reason the union has insisted on hybrid bargaining — to enable some key negotiators to attend sessions without flying around the country. 

In refusing hybrid bargaining, Starbucks has voiced fears that some baristas would record the sessions and use the recordings to embarrass the company on TikTok or other social media. Union officials say that no union members have recorded negotiating sessions or intend to do so.

Starbucks sent its letter saying it wanted to resume talks after its share price and public image took beatings. November 16 was Starbucks’ much-ballyhooed Red Cup Day (when Starbucks gives out free red cups), but on that day, the union sponsored walkouts at more than 200 stores. One study found that there was a 31.7% increase in visitors on that highly promoted day — a disappointing result for Starbucks compared to last year’s 81% increase. Newsweek reported that between November 16 and December 5, Starbucks suffered a $10.98 billion drop in market value as its stock fell by nearly 9% while the overall stock market climbed. Adding to the bad press for Starbucks, students at Georgetown University, UCLA and several other universities — upset about Starbucks’ union-busting, firing of pro-union baristas and delays in reaching a first contract — are seeking to follow in Cornell’s University’s footsteps and expel Starbucks from their campuses.

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One long-time barista I interviewed (who insisted on anonymity) says that Starbucks’ announcement that it wanted to restart negotiations was just public relations and wasn’t credible. She says Starbucks has a larger credibility problem. Let’s not forget that Starbucks first insisted that it wasn’t anti-union even as it mounted one of the most elaborate and expensive anti-union campaigns in the United States in decades. Starbucks has repeatedly maintained that it has not broken the law even once in its battle against the union even though, according to a recent NLRB news release, four NLRB Members, 19 administrative law judges, two federal district judges, and three federal appellate judges have issued a total of 44 decisions” finding that Starbucks’s anti-union campaign broke the law. Various judges have found that the company has, for example, closred a store in retaliation for having recently unionized and cut back baristas’ hours in newly unionized stores. Starbucks also denies that it has illegally fired even one worker in retaliation for supporting a union, but according to the NLRB, the company has been ordered to reinstate 36 employees around the country who were found to have been fired unlawfully. The union maintains there have been more than 200 unlawful retaliatory firings. Starbucks is appealing all these decisions.

In Kelly’s letter, Starbucks called for another condition to restart talks: that the two sides agree to stop any disparaging or threatening language or conduct. It’s unclear what that demand is calling for. Would it require that the union and its members would have to stop calling Starbucks a union buster” or lawbreaker?” Would such descriptions of judicial rulings be considered improper disparagement? Could union members not say that Starbucks is lying in claiming that it hasn’t fired any baristas in retaliation for backing unionization? 

The union is calling for a boycott of Starbucks’ holiday gift cards in protest of the company’s “ruthless union-busting.”

Would Starbucks’ non-threat” demand mean that the union would have to stop threatening new strikes and could never threaten a nationwide boycott? If that’s what Starbucks wants, getting the union to agree to those things would significantly weaken the union’s ability to pressure Starbucks. 

In responding to the Starbucks letter, Lynne Fox, the president of Workers United, the parent of Starbucks Workers United, said, We are reviewing it … We’ve never said no to meeting with Starbucks. Anything that moves bargaining forward in a positive way is most welcome.”

In the meantime, the union is calling for a boycott of Starbucks’ holiday gift cards in protest of the company’s ruthless union-busting.”

It’s unclear whether Starbucks is merely posturing and doing public relations or whether it sincerely wants to restart talks and move bargaining forward to reach a first contract. But if Starbucks isn’t sincere, then the company will certainly face lots more public pressure, bad press, operations issues and declining stock prices as a result of more protests, more strikes and more spontaneous calls for a nationwide boycott.

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Steven Greenhouse is a former New York Times labor reporter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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