Labor Union Charges Phoenix Starbucks with Retaliation Against Workers

Betty Q. Hixson
Arizona Starbucks baristas claim that the publicly-traded Seattle coffee giant is trying to undermine unionization efforts by spying on workers and other union-busting tactics.

Starbucks managers responsible for a bustling drive-thru location in North Phoenix are accused of employee surveillance and attempting to dissuade them against unionizing, federal labor records obtained by Phoenix New Times shows.

Starbucks workers, through the Workers United union, claim that managers tried to coerce, restrain, and surveil employees who sought to unionize a corporate-run coffee shop in the Windsong neighborhood, according to a letter obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“They are harassing employees,” said Robert Giolito, a labor attorney with nearly five decades of experience who filed a charge on behalf of workers with the National Labor Relations Board.

“That is, of course, unlawful,” Giolito said.

The NLRB redacted the names of workers involved in the allegations and the workers’ attorney declined to further elaborate on the union’s claims beyond the public record.

The federal labor complaint specifically accused Starbucks of using “unlawful handbook rules” to discriminate against employees by soliciting grievances and awarding benefits differently to union supporters in the past six months. Starbucks spied on and micromanaged its employees, according to the allegations.

Starbucks denied all claims of union-busting and violating any federal labor laws but declined to answer specific questions about the Phoenix coffee shop allegations.

“Any claims of anti-union activity are categorically false,” Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said.

Starbucks has not yet defended itself to the federal board.

But the company is preparing to defend itself against a barrage of unionization drives and labor law violation complaints as workers are demanding changes with greater fervor this year than ever.

On January 1, the company was involved in just nineteen union-related labor law cases among its 9,000 corporate stores nationwide.

As of mid-February, Starbucks is now involved in 111 cases, 91 of which are about workers declaring intent to form a union and about two dozen more involved in unfair labor practice charges.

That represents roughly 1 percent of all cases every business is defending itself against in the system.

The sudden explosion of union efforts inside Starbucks stores “is an unprecedented social phenomenon,” Giolito, the attorney said.

“I don’t think anyone expected this to happen,” he said. “I certainly didn’t.”

Two stores have unionized successfully so far — both since mid-December and both in Buffalo, New York.

Workers are seeking a stronger voice for their concerns and a pay increase.

In Starbucks’ current fiscal year, which started in October, baristas earned $15.97 an hour and shift supervisors made a base pay of $20.28 an hour, according to federal records.

Mesa Starbucks workers were the first cohort of employees to try and unionize the corporate coffee shop in Arizona.

Workers across two Mesa Starbucks locations filed documents with the labor board indicating their intent to organize. One store at South Power and East Baseline Roads is expected to be the third store in the nation to unionize despite Starbucks’ efforts to hamper the legal process, which led to the impounding of votes after employees cast ballots declaring their position on the union.

Still, Philadelphia-based multi-industry union Workers United, which oversees organization at Starbucks stores, filed charges against Starbucks on February 4 in the NLRB’s Phoenix district.

While the underpinnings of federal labor law may not change, the detailed rules and guidelines often do transition depending on the presidential administration in charge.  Two days after baristas in Mesa saw their votes impounded last Wednesday, the labor board ruled in favor of the workers.

But Starbucks has been allowed to use the same delay tactics and copycat arguments in all its cases to block the union.

But because of a law passed during the Donald Trump administration in September 2020, Starbucks is empowered to challenge the voting time and time again — even using the same argument that was shot down in manifold previous cases.

“Our labor laws are so archaic that they’re easy to exploit,” Giolito said.

Starbucks, one of the wealthiest corporations in America valued at more than $52 billion, has kept its foot on the gas pedal even as the number of corporate-run stores initiating the organization process grows exponentially.

“They have endless resources,” Giolito said.

When Starbucks workers look to form a union, the company “will spend any amount of money to do so and resort to every tactic permissible and in some cases impermissible,” he said.

Starbucks spokespeople claim to work with partners and remain open-minded when workers eye a union. But that’s not the case for more than twenty employees at the Windsong store, which sits at 7000 East Mayo Boulevard on the Phoenix-Scottsdale line.

“Starbucks is doing everything possible to persuade its employees not to support the union,” Giolito said. “Those activities sometimes cross the line.”

The anomalous hike in union efforts inside Starbucks stores can be attributed to the quality of workers that the corporation spent years trying to attract, the attorney said.

The company eliminated plastic straws in 2020, offers to foot the bill for college tuition, and even pays women slightly more than men on average.

The average Starbucks employee is a 24-year-old woman who leans left politically. In today’s worker-controlled market, this average Starbucks employee is likely to be attracted to the idea of unionizing.

“They profess to be a progressive company,” said Michelle Eisen, a labor organizer at Workers United. “But they’re not.”

It’s in tenor with the times, Gionet said.

Young people, especially those likely to seek a job at Starbucks, are generally angry, disaffected, and challenging authority.

“They demand to be heard,” Gionet said. “They’re not intimidated.”

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