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Starbucks Hit With Labor Board Petition for Nationwide Order (2)

June 22, 2022, 2:28 PMUpdated: June 22, 2022, 6:13 PM

A National Labor Relations Board official is seeking a nationwide court order to halt Starbucks Corp.’s allegedly illegal union-busting campaign.

Starbucks is accused of committing a host of labor law violations to snuff out organizing efforts, including closing stores, discriminating against union supporters, promising benefits to deter union support, and refusing to bargain with the union, according to the petition filed Tuesday in federal court.

“Absent immediate interim relief, Starbucks will achieve its goal, through unlawful means, of irreparably harming the campaign in Buffalo, and sending a clear chilling message to its employees across the country,” NLRB Buffalo Regional Director Linda Leslie said in a statement.

The court petition is an escalation of the NLRB legal division’s battle against the coffee chain. It names several top executives, including CEO Howard Schultz, as allegedly committing unfair labor practices.

Starbucks has denied wrongdoing and said it’s negotiating with some of the more than 150 stores that have voted to unionize with Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

“As we have said previously, we believe these claims are false and will be prepared to defend our case,” Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges said in response to the petition.

Buffalo in Focus

Workers United’s organizing campaign kicked off in the Buffalo area, with the first of nearly 300 union election petitions in 35 states filed there last August.

The NLRB’s Buffalo office filed a massive administrative complaint against Starbucks in May, accusing the company of more than 200 labor law violations. Overall, agency prosecutors have issued eight complaints against the company related to the ongoing union wave.

Tuesday’s bid for a court order, filed in the US District Court in Western New York, seeks the reinstatement of seven Buffalo employees who allegedly were fired for their union activity. The petition also asks for an order requiring Starbucks to bargain with the union at a store where these labor law violations were said to have made a fair election impossible.

NLRB prosecutors can request federal court orders with authorization from the board. Those bids for injunctions, used to stop ongoing violations that can do irreparable harm to worker organizing efforts, represent one of the agency’s most potent weapons against labor law violations.

A federal court in Arizona earlier this month rejected an injunction request to reinstate Starbucks workers at a Phoenix location. Another other court petition related to allegations of illegal firings is pending.

Court Power

The request for a nationwide cease-and-desist order against Starbucks is unusual, said Michael Duff, a labor law professor at the University of Wyoming. It would be surprising for a court to grant such a broad order outside of a mass employee discharge, said Duff, a former NLRB attorney.

But if agency lawyers can convince a judge, then they would gain a faster and stronger route to go after Starbucks for unfair labor practices rather than administrative proceedings before the board, said Anne Lofaso, a labor law professor at West Virginia University.

A court can fine Starbucks for violating the order, a penalty that the board can’t issue for labor law violations, said Lofaso, who is also a former NLRB attorney. A court could even jail company officials if there were repeated and serious violations of the order that reach the level of criminal contempt, she said.

Court action against the company also has the potential to trigger a customer boycott, Lofaso said.

“This brings more attention to how Starbucks is treating its workers,” she said. “That’s where the real remedy could come.”

The case is Leslie v. Starbucks Corp., W.D.N.Y., No. 22-00477, petition filed 6/21/22.

(Updated with additional reporting throughout.)

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; Genevieve Douglas at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com