Dirty Chai or Dirty Labor Practices?

Photo by Abigail Leavins

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Unions had their fair share of publicity across the country in 2023, from United Auto Workers striking in Detroit to the Writers Guild and SAG-AFTRA strikes in Hollywood. And the momentum of such movements won’t stall just because a new calendar year has begun.

In the past, Starbucks has received attention for its alleged anti-union tactics, and there appears to be a rising tension between the company and its employees.

In December of 2023, the National Labor Relations Board announced they would attempt to force Starbucks to reopen 23 of its stores after they were closed to prevent employees from unionizing.  Of the 23 closed stores, eight were already unionized, and the remainder discussed the prospect of unionization.

The board found that “Starbucks closed the 23 stores without prior notice to [Starbucks] Workers United, the union behind the campaign, and without affording the union an opportunity to bargain about the decisions.” An administrative judge will hear this illegal act of union busting, but the date for the case is yet to be determined. Starbucks has not commented on the subject.

But closing these stores was not the first time Starbucks has engaged in this behavior against Starbucks Workers United. Starbucks started the process of suing the union in October of 2023 for a post that supported Palestine. The post stated, “Solidarity with Palestine!” and was only online for forty minutes before it was removed from the social media site X because union leaders did not approve it. Still, the company claims that this post upset Starbucks customers and harmed the company’s reputation.

Starbucks’ suit against Starbucks Workers United also accuses trademark infringement, taking issue with the union having “Starbucks” in their name and using a green and white logo resembling the trademarked Starbucks logo. To this claim, the union contends that it is common practice for unions to utilize their company’s name and logo in their messaging, citing the Amazon Labor Union and the National Football League Players Association.

As a company, Starbucks has spoken about the increasing unionization of their employees. The company’s founder, Howard Schultz, recently stepped down as CEO in 2023. However, before he gave up the position, he interviewed with CNN. The main topic of the conversation was Starbucks Workers United.

Schultz, who had already stepped down twice before, said that he came back as CEO of Starbucks because the company “was not leading in a way that was consistent with its history in terms of being a value-based company,” the same issue Schultz believes caused the unionization efforts among stores.

However, in the interview, Schultz did not acknowledge that unionization efforts have only increased across the country during his final term as CEO, failing to recognize that the “values” he sought to reinstate with his return were not as important in satisfying employee demands as initially thought.

Moreover, the company leader was adamant that they would only participate in bargaining sessions that are in-person due to possible foul play that may arise in a virtual setting. However, many union leaders have pointed out the hypocrisy of this requirement, as Starbucks’ administration regularly uses Zoom meetings for their own purposes. To those trying to unionize, this is just another union-busting tactic the multinational corporation is utilizing.

Starbucks has had a long, tumultuous relationship with Starbucks Workers United, engaging in predatory practices that discourage the union from expanding its reach. So, what does this mean for the future? As pressure continues to amass within both Starbucks’ corporate administration and Starbucks Workers United, it can be expected that all eyes will be on the company to see if it chooses to proceed with or abandon its illegal labor relations and union-busting tactics. 

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This article was edited by Nicole Kilada and Renee Agostini.