Starbucks suspends workers and closes store over union activity

Starbucks suspends workers and closes store over union activity
Unionised workers say their store manager alleged kidnapping and assault charges after they demanded pay raises and better equipment

Starbucks workers at a store in Anderson, South Carolina, presented a letter of demands to their store manager on 1 August in an interaction that has since racked up millions of views on TikTok.

Workers at the store were the first in the south to form a union by a unanimous vote of 18-0, joining more than 200 unionised corporate-run retail stores representing thousands of workers at the coffee giant.

In the video, showing what is a called a “march on the boss” action, the manager stands up from a table and nudges one of the workers as they leave toward the store’s entrance.

The manager filed charges with local police alleging assault and kidnapping against workers at the store, according to Starbucks Workers United, the union campaign supporting Starbucks workers.

Starbucks closed the store with little notice, suspended the workers and barred them from visiting any other Starbucks locations, according to the union’s attorney.

A statement from Starbucks to The Independent on 9 August said the incident in question happened on the store manager’s “first day working at this location” and that they “felt threatened and unsafe as a result of conduct by 11 store partners.”

“We opened an investigation and suspended with pay the partners involved in the incident,” according to the statement. “Following the incident, the store manager filed a report with law enforcement, who has directed Starbucks to refrain from engaging with the 11 partners until their investigation is complete. Starbucks will continue to cooperate with law enforcement’s separate investigation and comply with its requests.”

Five allegations of misconduct have been filed against Starbucks to the National Labor Relations Board, according to union attorney Ian Hayes.

“Workers have the right to do what they did, and the company is violating that right by retaliating against them,” he told reporters in a virtual briefing on 8 August.

“This was all in reaction to action that is protected under the law,” he said. “The company’s reaction to that is treating the workers like criminals … deprive them of their livelihood and stop them from engaging other workers.”

Natalie Mann, a Starbucks worker who was among roughly three dozen workers and supporters protesting outside the store on Monday, said: “I’m going to keep fighting like hell. If you want to fire me, I don’t care. I’m going to keep fighting.”

In their letter, workers demanded better equipment to perform their jobs and wage increases that were promised to other non-union workers by the end of the month. Workers said they would not work without a raise.

Starbucks had pledged to spend $1bn on wage hikes, training and store updates within the year, but “at stores where workers have union representation, federal law requires good faith bargaining over wages, benefits and working conditions which prohibits Starbucks from making or announcing unilateral changes,” according to a company statement.

Union workers at the South Carolina store allege that management refused to acknowledge the union or demands in the latest letter.

In a six-minute recording of the meeting, a manager appears to be talking on the phone with Starbucks management as employees present their letter.

“We’re here today because we’re demanding our pay raise that Starbucks has promised every single worker,” one employee is heard saying. “We’re not going to move until some action is taken for the raise.”

At the end of the recording, the manager can be heard asking “will you let me exit the building”; the other employee says “yes”.

Senator Bernie Sanders, who has supported Starbucks workers’ union campaigns, called the company’s latest maneuver “outrageous”.

“This campaign of rampant union-busting from Starbucks has got to end,” he said.

One year ago, there were no unionised Starbucks employees at their corporate-run retail coffee shops. Now, there are more than 5,000.

The National Labor Relations Board – the federal agency that oversees union efforts – has fielded dozens of complaints related to the company’s alleged anti-union practise, from unlawfully firing employees to launching pressure campaigns to prevent staff from unionising.

A 45-page government complaint from the Buffalo, New York, area alleges a pattern of violations among Starbucks management in retaliation for workers’ union support, including firing six workers, promising benefits to workers who opposed the union, surveilling conversations and interrogating workers about the union, inconsistent enforcement of store policies, and closing stores altogether, among other allegations.

The complaint is the result of dozens of allegations of unfair labour practices filed by union organisers since November 2021.

During a conference in June, CEO Howard Shultz said he is “not anti-union” but said that unions were historically “based on the fact that companies in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s abused their people”.

“We’re not in the coal mining business, we’re not abusing our people,” Mr Schultz said. “We don’t believe that a third party should lead our people and so we are in a battle for the hearts and minds of our people.”

Lynne Fox, president of labour organising group Workers United, told reporters on Monday that Starbucks “continues to escalate their anti-union campaign to an unimaginable degree,” condemning the “false and absurd” and “unfounded attacks and misuse of the legal system” to punish workers for issuing demands to management.