Starbucks committed “egregious and widespread” violations of federal labor law while trying to halt union campaigns, ruled a federal administrative law judge, who ordered the coffee giant to reopen closed stores and reimburse backpay and damages to employees who launched a nationwide organizing drive at the company.
In resolving an extensive case that combined 33 unfair labor practices charges from 21 stores in the Buffalo area, Rosas held that the company retaliated against employees affiliated with Starbucks Workers United as they began a union drive in 2021. Since then, 268 of the roughly 9,000 company-owned U.S. stores have voted to unionize, and Starbucks’s interim chief executive Howard Schultz has drawn the ire of liberal political leaders.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said Wednesday that he would force a vote to subpoena Schultz as part of a hearing about unionization efforts at Starbucks.
“To order a company to reopen stores that it’s closed should be embarrassing for Starbucks,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University.
Rosas’s order requires Starbucks to halt a sweeping list of behaviors that include: retaliating against employees for unionizing; promising improved pay and benefits if workers renounced the union; surveilling union-supporting employees while on-site; refusing to hire prospective employees who back the union; and relocating union organizers to new stores to halt the group’s activity, overstaffing stores ahead of union votes.
Starbucks, the judge said, must reopen stores it closed as union momentum swelled among workers, rescind dozens of disciplinary actions taken against Buffalo-area employees, pay “reasonable consequential damages” and offer to reinstate terminated workers to their jobs.
Rosas’s order also calls for Schultz and Denise Nelson, the company’s senior vice president of U.S. operations, to read a 14-page notice that explains workers’ rights and how the company violated the law.
That same notice must be posted in each of the company’s stores, Rosas ruled, and shared digitally with employees. He also ordered Starbucks to begin negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with Buffalo-area workers.
The judge wrote that the company exhibited “widespread union animus” that colored supervisors’ decision-making, an accusation that Starbucks has repeatedly denied.
“When workers launched their organizing campaign in the summer of 2021, we never could have imagined the lengths Starbucks would go to try to stop employees from exercising their legal right to organize,” Gary Bonadonna Jr., manager of the Workers United Rochester regional joint board, said in a statement. “This ruling proves what we have been saying all along — Starbucks is the poster child of union-busting in the United States. We are thrilled that the company is being held accountable for their actions and we will continue to fight until every Starbucks worker wins the right to organize.”
Starbucks spokesman Andrew Trull said the company believes the judge’s ruling and order are “inappropriate given the record in this matter.”
Starbucks is considering “all options to obtain further legal review,” Trull said.
The company said workers were terminated after violating company policies and not in retaliation for engaging in union activity. The judge did not accept that explanation.
Starbucks dismissed employees who were involved in organizing campaigns for cursing while on the job, even though cursing was common and usually did not result in discipline, Rosas held. After another employee appeared in a Washington Post report about the Starbucks union drive, a manager changed her hours in a way Rosas held was discriminatory and amounted to a firing.
Yet another employee was terminated after arriving late to a shift, even though “occasional tardiness was not strictly enforced” by supervisors, the judge found. When managers disciplined the employee for the incident, they incorporated criticism from almost a year before, even though Starbucks “does not usually rely on discipline over six months old in assessing subsequent violations.”
“The evidence established that the Respondent’s actions were driven by discriminatory motivation to eliminate yet another union supporter,” Rosas wrote of one of the employee’s terminations. “Its widespread coercive behavior over six months had permeated every store in the Buffalo market.”
Lauren Kaori Gurley contributed to this report.