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NLRB accuses Starbucks of retaliating against workers seeking to unionize

Michelle Eisen, a barista in Buffalo, helps the local Starbucks Workers United at a union hall in Mesa, Ariz., as employees gather to cast votes to unionize on Feb. 16. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
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The National Labor Relations Board has accused Starbucks of retaliating against two employees who sought to unionize their coffee shop in Phoenix, according to a complaint reviewed by The Washington Post.

The NLRB typically issues formal complaints after it investigates accusations brought against employers and finds merit in them. In this case, two Phoenix baristas brought a raft of allegations against the company, including retaliation, making threats and changing the conditions of employment for individuals who were engaged in “concerted activity,” which is protected under national labor policy.

The NLRB intervened in order to prevent alleged retaliatory activity that it believes is unlawful.

“Employees have the right to work together to improve their working conditions, including by forming a union,” said Cornele Overstreet, NLRB director for region 28, which covers Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Nevada and Texas. He added that the NLRB wants to "make whole the victims of these unlawful practices.”

Starbucks has repeatedly denied that it engages in surveillance or any sort of retaliatory activity. In an emailed statement, Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges implied that the company’s efforts to discipline these two employees was unrelated to their union activity.

“A partner’s interest in a union does not exempt them from the standards we have always held,” Borges said in the email. “We will continue enforcing our policies consistently for all partners and we will follow the NLRB’s process to resolve this complaint.”

The NLRB’s intervention plays into a broader national effort to unionize workers at Starbucks’ stores. Several attempts to form unions at company stores in previous years failed, including one in New York in 2004 and another in Philadelphia in 2020.

But organizers have gained more traction over the past year. They are riding a wave of increasingly aggressive labor actions, with 265 “work stoppages” involving 140,000 workers in 2021, according to Cornell University, as labor shortages strengthen the hand of organized labor.

Late last year baristas at a coffee shop in Buffalo voted 19-8 to unionize despite months of opposition from the Seattle-based company, becoming the first of Starbucks’ roughly 9,000 shops to successfully establish a union. Workers at three more stores in New York later followed suit.

Starbucks Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, has brought at least a dozen charges on behalf of baristas across the country alleging similar retaliation, according to NLRB case dockets.

Starbucks has opposed the union’s efforts to organize specific shops. But the company has repeatedly denied surveilling or intimidating employees.

If the NLRB prevails in its case, Starbucks could be required to read statements and post physical notices in its stores informing workers of their right to organize. That requirement is a common remedy in labor retaliations cases. The company also could be required to reimburse Sanchez for the hours of work that she lost because of Starbucks’s alleged retaliation. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for June 14.

The case was brought by Laila Dalton and Alyssa Sanchez, two Phoenix baristas who were active in the unionization drive.

In the complaint, the NLRB accused two Starbucks managers of suspending Dalton and giving her a written warning, as well as rejecting Sanchez’s scheduling preferences as a way of discouraging them from raising concerns with managers.

Dalton had complained about problems including understaffing, work schedules and supervisors’ treatment of employees, according to the NLRB. The complaint alleges that her managers suspended her and gave her a written warning pointing out absences and policy violations that had previously been excused, including taking unauthorized shifts, going on medical absences and sending a text message to a manager.

The NLRB said Starbucks decided to discipline them because they “assisted the Union and engaged in concerted activities, and to discourage employees from engaging in these activities.” National labor laws protect employees’ right to engage in “concerted activity” to address work-related concerns.

The union, in a statement attributed to a Scottsdale barista named Bill Whitmire, demanded a public apology from Starbucks for workers who were “discriminated against, lied to, harassed, bullied, and retaliated against” for trying to unionize their store.

“Laila and Alyssa were traumatized and their hope is that no other Partner EVER has to go through what they have gone through,” Whitmire said in a statement put out by the union.