Starbucks worker

A cashier wears a face mask at a Starbucks coffee shop location. Starbucks employees in the Buffalo, New York area began voting on November 10, 2021 regarding forming a union.

(Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Starbucks Doesn't Care the Costs, It Just Wants to Crush the Barista Unions

Despite various concerns, Starbucks has repeatedly bent or broken US labor law to destroy those workers’ efforts and punish them for even trying to better their lives.

Many people are aware that their friendly Starbucks’ baristas have been trying to form unions, to raise their wages and seek safer workplaces and better treatment at work. They may not be aware that Starbucks has repeatedly bent or broken US labor law to destroy those workers’ efforts and punish them for even trying to better their lives. Now the company’s dirty linen is being aired publicly—through a rare vote by its shareholders, a Senate hearing, and most recently a complaint to the International Labour Organization (ILO) seeking a review of US law that allows Starbucks to crush workers’ rights with seeming impunity.

Over the last two years Starbucks’ workers at more than 300 of the company’s stores have voted to unionize in government supervised elections—but Starbucks has not agreed to a single collective bargaining agreement. Meanwhile the company has granted wage and benefit increases to workers at non-union stores while withholding them from baristas who unionized, rubbing this discrimination in the organized workers’ faces. The company has threatened and fired workers who support the union and closed stores where workers voted for the union. Workers have filed more than 500 charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

After nearly a century of anti-union interpretations of the law by hostile courts, and wielding only weak enforcement tools, the NLRB has been unable to stop union-busting in this or other egregious cases.

After careful reviews of the facts, NLRB administrative law judges, the National Labor Relations Board and federal district courts have ruled that Starbucks acted illegally in multiple instances. In light of the lengthening list of egregious violations and management’s arrogant refusal to correct course, a majority of Starbucks’ shareholders voted in March to require the company to conduct an independent audit of its behavior toward workers and unions. It is extremely rare for shareholders to take on management on the issue of labor rights. One institutional investor said “This is a huge signal from shareholders to the company of a need to take stock. Starbucks management is in conflict with its own workforce.”

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing on the matter in late March, with Starbucks’ former CEO appearing only under threat of subpoena while Starbucks’ workers and critics presented the violations in vivid detail. Senator Bernie Sanders, the committee chair, observed “Over the past 18 months, Starbucks has waged the most aggressive and illegal union busting campaign in the modern history of our country.”

Most recently the unions representing Starbucks workers—the Service Employees International Union and its Workers United affiliate—along with the AFL-CIO, have filed a complaint with the International Labour Organization (ILO) asking for an investigation by the UN body of Starbucks’ behavior. The complaint details the weaknesses in US labor law, including an enforcement regime characterized by protracted delays and ineffective remedies that establish no deterrence against a company that continues to interfere with workers’ freedom of association even after multiple complaints, hearings, and findings of unlawful conduct.

Some context is in order here. The US played an active role at the ILO to reach an international consensus that freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively are among the most fundamental rights of workers in all countries of the world, a consensus that was codified in the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. This instrument obligates the US and all 186 member states of the ILO to respect and realize these rights, regardless of whether a country has ratified the relevant ILO conventions.

Since 2007 the US has invoked these obligations again and again in its trade agreements to require trading partners to adopt and maintain statutes, regulations and practices that protect these rights. In fact, Congress has required the White House to negotiate obligations to respect these fundamental rights in free trade agreements as a condition for their ratification. This embrace of international labor standards and obligations has been an essential foundation for reaching bipartisan consensus on US foreign economic policy.

The most recent US free trade agreement, the United States Mexico Canada Agreement, won strong bipartisan approval in significant part because it required Mexico to reform its labor laws to strengthen its workers’ rights to form independent unions and bargain collectively. This was seen as a pre-requisite to address the failure of Mexican wages to converge upward during the twenty-five years of NAFTA, the predecessor trade pact covering North America. Allowing Starbucks to continue to violate its workers’ rights with impunity poses real risk to the carefully and laboriously crafted consensus on labor rights and standards that has allowed the US to move forward on trade and related economic policy.

The official, legislated policy of the United States is to protect the right of workers to organize unions and to encourage collective bargaining. However, after nearly a century of anti-union interpretations of the law by hostile courts, and wielding only weak enforcement tools, the National Labor Relations Board has been unable to stop union-busting in this or other egregious cases. The current petition filed with the ILO aims to bring the problem into the open, as the first step to crack down on scoff-law Starbucks and build support for serious labor law reforms that would strengthen US workers’ rights. The petitioners request the ILO to send an on-the-spot mission to investigate the violations in light of US obligations under the internationally agreed labor standards. The US government should accept such a mission for the sake of its own workers and for its credibility on the international stage.

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