After Starbucks announced Monday that it plans to shutter 16 U.S. stores as part of a strategy for addressing store safety, the chain’s rapidly expanding union filed a complaint alleging that the move is a form of union-busting.
The coffee chain said that by the end of the month it would close six stores each in the Seattle and Los Angeles areas, two in Portland, Oregon, as well as locations in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. On Wednesday, Seattle workers from Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) — the union that has been organizing stores across the country — filed an unfair labor practice charge arguing that the closures amount to retaliation and illegal coercion against union activity.
Of the 16 stores set for closure, two locations in Seattle have successfully unionized and one store in Portland is set for a union vote in August.
“Within the past six months the Employer closed and/or threatened to close at least 16 stores in order to discourage union activity, retaliate against workers engaged in union activity and/or escape its obligation to bargain with the Union,” reads the complaint.
The charge seeks injunctive relief for the workers at the closed stores, which would fast-track a court order while the case is being litigated before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a process which can often take months.
This isn’t the first time SBWU has charged that the company has shut down stores as a way to suppress organizing.
In May, the NLRB issued a wide-reaching complaint on behalf of unionized stores in the Buffalo, New York area that alleged upper management closed two stores shortly after the union drive began, an allegation that was among a list of over 200 labor violations. A federal court is currently holding a hearing on whether to issue injunctive relief based on that complaint.
Workers at a Starbucks store in Ithaca, New York filed a similar charge after the location was closed down at the beginning of June — two months after they voted to unionize.
In two letters that Starbucks executives sent to employees on Monday, management wrote that the changes, including store closures, are a part of a campaign to modernize in order to reflect the “state of the world, the conditions of our stores and communities, and the hopes and dreams and lives of each of our partners.”
Part of that effort, the letters said, includes addressing incidents that involve mental health crises, drug use and racism that workers encounter on the job. Debbie Stroud and Denise Nelson, senior vice presidents of U.S. operations, wrote that remedies for such incidents can include modifying hours, closing a restroom or even closing a store permanently.
In a statement to In These Times on the initiative, a Starbucks spokesperson said: “We’re empowering local leaders, who have emphasized 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 top-down campaign comes on the heels of the newly formed union’s efforts to fight for increased safety measures, both through strikes and at the bargaining table.
Marina Multhaup, legal counsel for SBWU, told In These Times: “Recently in Seattle, Starbucks partners at seven stores went on strike partially in protest of safety conditions. Then Starbucks announced it was closing eight stores in the [Pacific Northwest] area. If Starbucks truly cared about its partners’ safety it would bargain about ways to ensure their protection, not displace workers by closing stores.”
Josie Serrano, a Los Angeles SBWU organizer and barista who works at a store that is not slated for closure, said that safety concerns raised by the corporate leadership are a reason why the stores are organizing. “A lot of Starbucks stores do have high incidents,” Serrano said.
Workers say that public restrooms, a welcoming lobby and free water at Starbucks stores sometimes do bring in houseless people or those experiencing mental health crises, which can at times lead to altercations. As a result, according to Serrano, some of the unionized stores have begun to demand an increased security guard presence.
“That’s what a lot of stores are wanting to do by unionizing,” Serrano said. “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.”
Cat Ureta, a barista at the unionized East Olive Way store in Seattle, first heard that her store was closing through the union’s Discord server and read about it in the media before her managers told her and her co-workers the news during a Zoom meeting on Monday.
Ureta said that she was surprised to hear that her store was slated for closure because she thought of it as one of the quieter ones in the city, and not facing as many security concerns as others. The store had taken part in a pilot program where the company provided security guards, she added.
When she and her co-workers asked upper management why their store was being singled out, Ureta said managers responded by claiming that the decision took into consideration the number and severity of incidents, but did not cite specifics.
According to Ureta and other co-workers, the managers also said that since the store is unionized, the decisions about workers’ hours, pay rates and whether they will be transferred to other locations is subject to bargaining and not guaranteed.
A Starbucks spokesperson responded to Ureta’s account of the meeting by referring to the letter executives sent out on Monday.
That response fits a pattern of new initiatives Starbucks has rolled out in the wake of the organizing wave, which includes benefits that the company says it cannot guarantee for its unionized workforce. In May, the coffee chain announced wage increases for workers, but said that it was prevented from assuring raises in stores that were in the process of unionizing or that had successfully done so. Last month, Starbucks also hedged on offering abortion access benefits, including out-of-state travel expenses, to workers in unionized stores, citing contact negotiations.
SBWU has demanded that these benefits be extended to all employees, including those at unionized stores. “Starbucks is permitted by law to offer these benefits to workers at unionized stores,” the union wrote. “Our bargaining committees will demand that these modest improvements be given immediately to all the partners.”
Ureta said that she and her co-workers have been trying to sit down at the bargaining table with Starbucks management since they voted for the union in June, but have yet to hear anything back.
“The fact that we are going into emergency bargaining over whether or not we’ll be able to even so much as stay at Starbucks is a little worrying when they’ve been ghosting everyone for months and months,” she said.
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Maxwell Parrott is a freelance journalist based in New York City.