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Starbucks Dials Up Anti-Union Heat by Accusing NLRB of Collusion

Aug. 16, 2022, 4:21 PM

Starbucks Corp. advanced its anti-union campaign into new territory by launching a direct attack on the National Labor Relations Board’s integrity, accusing the agency of secretly colluding with a union organizing the coffee chain’s workers to manipulate elections.

Starbucks aired its allegations in a 16-page letter Monday to NLRB officials that asked for a suspension of mail-ballot elections until the agency investigates the company’s claims and reports the results to the public. The company said it received inside information from a “career NLRB professional” supporting its allegations.

Starbucks’s accusations come in the midst of an organizing drive that has seen workers at more than 220 of the coffee chain’s 9,000 company-run locations electing Starbucks Workers United as their bargaining representative since December. The union has won about 80% of the elections.

The company has staunchly opposed unionization, with its CEO making anti-union comments that straddled the line of legality. NLRB regional offices have brought nearly 20 unfair labor practice complaints against Starbucks related to the unionizing wave. The agency has also gone to court to stop the company’s alleged illegal union busting.

The NLRB has been the target of company criticism before. Amazon.com Inc., for example, alleged that the agency’s office that administered the historic union election victory at a Staten Island warehouse violated its duty of impartiality by signaling to workers that it favored the union.

Large corporate employers try to distract from charges filed against them, first by ignoring agencies, then by declaring them “corrupt, biased, and illegitimate,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

But the Starbucks broadside against the NLRB stands out for the intensity of its rhetoric and the fact that it came in a public letter rather than via objections filed in individual cases, board watchers said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said William Gould, who served as board chair during the Clinton administration.

Alleged Collusion

Starbucks Workers United called the letter “absurd” and the allegations an attempt to distract from the company’s anti-union campaign.

While the NLRB doesn’t comment on open cases, the agency has “well-established processes” for parties to challenge the handling of election and unfair labor practice cases, NLRB spokeswoman Kayla Blado said.

“Those challenges should be raised in filings specific to the particular matters in question,” Blado said in a statement. “The regional staff—and, ultimately, the Board—will carefully and objectively consider any challenges raised through these established channels, which include opportunities to seek expedited review in both representation and unfair labor practice cases.”

Starbucks said in its letter that its challenge to the Buffalo office’s handling of an election led to the union’s victory being set aside and the scheduling of a rerun vote.

But the evidence Starbucks obtained from the career agency employee prompted the company to ask for a “broader investigation from the NLRB,” spokesman Reggie Borges told Bloomberg Law.

Starbucks addressed its letter to NLRB Chair Lauren McFerran and General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo. The company sent copies to the other board members and Inspector General David Berry, who also got a separate letter requesting an investigation of alleged election misconduct and an audit of other Starbucks cases.

The allegations focus on an election at an Overland Park, Kan., location that the union won in April.

The St. Louis office overseeing the election allegedly allowed secret in-person voting for certain workers, provided additional ballots, made individualized voting arrangements, improperly released information about balloting to the union, mishandled ballots, and tried to cover up its misconduct, Starbucks said.

“If the NLRB does not respond by investigating and remedying these types of actions, we do not see how the Board can represent itself as a neutral agency adjudicating unfair labor practice disputes—and elections—in a manner that is fair, honest, and proper, without the appearance of impropriety,” the company said.

The NLRB’s alleged misconduct goes beyond the St. Louis region, Starbucks said.

The agency’s Seattle office also made improper in-person voting arrangements for elections held in that region and, without an investigation, “it’s anyone’s guess how many elections in how many other regions have been similarly infected,” the company said.

NLRB regional offices are also indiscriminately hitting Starbucks with unfair labor practice charges based on unreliable evidence, according to the letter.

‘Act of Desperation’

An investigation validating any of Starbucks’ allegations would be “devastating,” said Jerry Hunter, the agency’s general counsel during the George H.W. Bush administration.

“I hope the allegations aren’t true, but if they are, it would undermine the agency’s credibility,” said Hunter, an employer-side attorney with Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP.

Starbucks appears to be attempting to put the NLRB on the defensive—potentially bullying personnel to be more hesitant and less aggressive—by targeting the agency in public, said Mark Gaston Pearce, who led the NLRB during the Obama administration. The company’s letter also advances the “fantasy” that the union’s success has little to do with workers’ choice and more to do with NLRB misconduct, he said.

“It’s a strategic move for the purpose of giving the board a public relations black eye through allegations that have little substantive merit,” said Pearce, currently the executive director of the Workers’ Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. “I view it as an act of desperation.”

Beyond the public relations impact, the letter could also “gum up the works” for the NLRB by sparking an inspector general investigation and attracting the interest of Congress, said Jeffrey Hirsch, a professor at the University of North Carolina. It could even catch the attention of federal judges, he said.

But it’s a risky move that “smacks a little of desperation” and could haunt Starbucks later if the facts don’t support the company’s claims, added Hirsch, a former NLRB attorney.

Starbucks’ letter was quickly picked up by a frequent critic of organized labor. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.)—who would likely head the Education and Labor Committee if the GOP takes the House in November’s midterm elections—called for the panel to investigate the claims.

“This country has never seen the NLRB act so openly—or brazenly—to drive American workers into unions,” Foxx said in a statement Monday. “I urge the majority to hold a hearing on these troubling reports.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Iafolla in Washington at riafolla@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Laura D. Francis at lfrancis@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com