Union organizers are demanding that Starbucks rethink its decision this week to exclude baristas at unionized stores from a big pay hike that was scheduled for August 1.
Eagerly anticipated for months, the move raised certain workers’ wages by up to 10%. The coffee giant had warned earlier that the benefits wouldn’t apply at unionized cafes because changes to employment terms and conditions for these locations now require a formal bargaining process.
But at a press conference this afternoon, the union, Workers United, argued that Starbucks is withholding better pay and benefits from unionized stores to freeze the union drive’s growing momentum, part of a pattern of escalation. Starbucks points out that it must now engage in collective bargaining to make most workplace changes in unionized cafés.
However, Workers United argues it knew these raises were coming, which is why on July 15, president Lynne Fox sent interim CEO Howard Schultz a letter, reviewed by Fast Company, that announced the union was “hereby waiv[ing] any objection we might have to Starbucks providing Union-represented employees with any wage or benefit improvements provided to unrepresented employees.”
The group—which is the half of the bargaining table representing workers—says Starbucks still hasn’t replied. But four days later, it did post a fact sheet addressing “benefits during organization” to its one.starbucks.com website that notes, “The law is clear: once a store unionizes, no changes to benefits are allowed without good faith collective bargaining.”
It goes on to say:
After a store unionizes, under federal law Starbucks can no longer unilaterally change terms and conditions of employment, including benefits, for unionized partners outside of the collective bargaining process. Any changes outside of this process are considered to be “direct dealing,” which is illegal.
Workers United’s letter calls Starbucks’s argument “misleading at best, and false at worst.” The group counters that it’s sufficient to waive its right to bargain in writing, and Fox summarizes its position in the letter by adding: “Workers United refuses to stand by while Starbucks cynically promises new benefits only to nonunionized workers and withholds them from our members.”
Starbucks directed Fast Company to that online fact sheet to explain its reasoning. The sheet reassures workers that even if a store is unionized, “you still have access to all the Starbucks benefits you had when the petition was filed.” Examples it lists include health insurance plans, reimbursement for gender-affirming care or abortion travel expenses, tuition coverage, and baristas’ comped Spotify accounts. “Any changes to your wages, benefits, and working conditions that Starbucks establishes after that time would not apply to you,” it clarifies, “and would have to be bargained.”
Interestingly, though, one of those benefits—travel reimbursement for abortion or gender-affirming care—wasn’t announced until May 16. At least 80 stores were already unionized by that date. Responding to a question about why it was able to offer a politically savvy healthcare benefit to unionized workers but not pay them more money, Starbucks said at issue was what federal labor law allows employers to unilaterally give—that is, that improvements to healthcare access may be unilateral, but wage improvements may not.
Workers United argues, however, that Starbucks has made other unilateral workplace changes since the union drive got serious. Several actually made the National Labor Relations Board’s recent complaint, alleging over 200 National Labor Relations Act violations—things like decreasing cafés’ operating hours, understaffing stores, closing stores, surveilling workers, and reducing pay.
Starbucks is even about to add another, according to the union: It says the chain next week is unilaterally bumping the opening hours for at least 50 unionized stores—including the nation’s first, in Buffalo—to 4:30 a.m. Baristas say this will add anxiety because it will make opening stores less safe and those much-loathed “clopenings” even more draconian.
“At the very minimum, Starbucks needs to come confer with the people this is impacting,” says Michael Dolce, a labor lawyer working with Workers United. “We need some kind of agreement around this policy.” In other words: bargaining.
“Starbucks is more than happy to make unilateral changes when it suits them,” says Sarah Pappin, one of the Workers United organizers and a barista in Seattle. “This is just about union-busting.”