Federal labor regulators accused Starbucks on Wednesday of illegally closing 23 stores to suppress union organizing activity and sought to force the company to reopen them.
A complaint filed by a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board claimed that Starbucks closed the stores because its employees were participating in union activities or to dissuade them from doing so. At least seven of the 23 stores identified were unionized.
The agency’s decision is the latest in a series of accusations by federal officials that Starbucks broke the law during a two-year union campaign.
The case is expected to go before an administrative law judge next summer, unless Starbucks settles it sooner. In addition to asking the judge to order the stores to reopen, the complaint wants employees to be compensated for lost income or benefits and other costs they incurred due to the closures.
“This complaint is the latest confirmation of Starbucks’ determination to illegally oppose worker organizing,” Mari Cosgrove, a Starbucks employee, said in a statement released by union spokesperson Workers United.
A Starbucks spokesperson said: “Each year, as part of our normal operations, we evaluate the store portfolio” and generally open, close or modify stores. The company said it opened hundreds of new stores last year and closed more than 100, about 3 percent of which were unionized.
The union drive began in 2021 in the Buffalo, New York area, where two stores unionized in December, before expanding nationwide. More than 350 of the approximately 9,300 company-owned locations are unionized.
The labor board has filed more than 100 complaints covering hundreds of accusations of illegal behavior by Starbucks, including threats or retaliation against workers involved in union activities and a lack of good faith bargaining. Administrative judges have ruled against the company more than 30 times, although the company appealed those decisions to the full Washington labor board. Judges rejected fewer than five complaints.
None of the unionized stores have negotiated labor contracts with the company and negotiations have essentially stalled. Last week, Starbucks wrote to Workers United saying it wanted to resume negotiations.
According to the complaint filed Wednesday, Starbucks executives announced the closure of 16 stores in July 2022, followed by several more closures over the coming months.
An administrative judge previously ruled that Starbucks illegally closed a unionized store in Ithaca, New York, and ordered workers reinstated with back pay, but the company appealed the decision.
The new complaint was filed the same day Starbucks released a non-confidential version of an external assessment aimed at determining whether its practices were consistent with its stated commitment to labor rights. The company’s shareholders voted in favor of the assessment in a non-binding vote, the results of which were announced in March.
The report’s author, Thomas M. Mackall, a former management attorney and labor relations manager at Sodexo, a food and facilities management company, wrote that he “found no evidence an “anti-union manual”, instructions or training on the subject. “how to violate US laws.”
But Mr. Mackall concluded that Starbucks officials involved in the response to the union campaign did not appear to understand how the company World Declaration of Human Rights could limit their response. The bill of rights commits Starbucks to respect freedom of association and employee participation in collective bargaining.
Mr. Mackall cited executives’ “allegedly illegal promises and threats” and “allegedly discriminatory or retaliatory disciplinary actions and terminations” as areas where Starbucks could improve.
In a letter linked to the report’s release, the company’s chairman and an independent director said the assessment was clear: “Starbucks did not intend to deviate from the principles freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. At the same time, the letter adds, “there are things the company can and should do to improve its stated commitments and adherence to these important principles.”