Starbucks fending off growing unionization effort at its stores

Just a few weeks after ballots were mailed for a rare unionization vote at three Starbucks locations in Buffalo, New York, the coffee chain is fending off a growing movement.

In late October, three Starbucks stores, located on Elmwood Avenue in Elmwood Village, Genesee Street in Cheektowaga and Camp Road in Hamburg, received approval from the National Labor Relations Board to hold three separate votes for approximately 111 workers to decide whether they want to be represented by Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

Starbucks previously requested to hold a single union vote for 20 stores in the Buffalo area, however that request was denied by the NLRB.

Now, an additional three Buffalo-area stores appeared before the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday after filing for their own union elections last month. The hearing is expected to last for several days.

During Thursday’s hearing, Starbucks’ attorney Alan Model noted that 45.5% of baristas and shift supervisors in the Buffalo area worked at more than one store in the company’s 2021 fiscal year, which ended Oct. 3, which helped the company meet shifting customer demand.

“It’s by design, not happenstance, that you can walk into any store and enjoy the same food and beverage in any store, and its partners can work at any store at any time,” Model told a hearing officer from the labor board.

However, Workers United attorney Ian Hayes said the NLRB already has determined the individual store union elections are appropriate and argued that it’s uncommon for baristas to work at different locations.

The outcome of the union election at the first three Buffalo-area stores is still uncertain as Starbucks has filed an appeal requesting the full National Labor Relations Board in Washington to review its case.

If the NLRB denies Starbucks’ request for a review of the regional decision, ballots will be counted on Dec. 9. If the full board decides to review the decision, the ballots will be impounded until the board decides whether to keep the regional decision in place.

If the union vote is successful, the stores would be the first of Starbucks’ 8,000 company-owned U.S. locations to unionize. A majority vote at any one of the stores would create a bargaining unit for that location. In addition to unionization efforts in Buffalo, workers at a Starbucks store in Mesa, Arizona, filed paperwork on Nov. 18 with their labor relations board asking for their own union election.

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Starbucks North America president Rossann Williams said in a message to employees on Oct. 18 that the company will be hosting meetings to talk about the union vote and how it would fundamentally change workers’ direct relationship with Starbucks.

“We care deeply about our partners here in Buffalo, as we do in every market across the country, and we want to preserve our partner to partner relationship,” Williams said. “While it is certainly our partners’ right to make their own decision – and one we fully respect – I do hope our partners will give us a chance as they make the best decision for themselves, their families and their fellow partners.”

She added that the company’s actions in Buffalo are about being “pro-Starbucks partners,” rather than pro or anti-union.

“As you know, our heritage and culture are built on the belief that by working directly together as partners, we can build a different kind of company,” the message continues. “We do that by listening, having real talk, and lifting one another up, always with Our Mission and Values at our core. It’s what I truly love most about Starbucks – and I know many of you do too. Every success we have ever achieved has been in direct partnership with one another – without an outside party between us.”

While acknowledging operational gaps between stores, Williams emphasized that the company would continue to make investments in wages, referral bonuses, cold beverage labor and hourly recruiting specialists, fixing and innovating store equipment and technology, training and more.

Representatives for Workers United did not immediately return FOX Business’ request for comment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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