Labor, Democracy & the Common Good

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a formal complaint last week alleging that Starbucks had withheld pay raises and other benefits from newly unionized Starbucks stores, including three in Georgia. 

Two Atlanta Starbucks stores, located at Ansley Mall and Howell Mill voted to unionize in June, after an Augusta store unionized in April

It remains to be seen whether the NLRB’s enforcement action will have an immediate impact on relationships between management and the unionized workers, who’ve told Atlanta Civic Circle that Starbucks has refused to respond to their efforts to negotiate a union contract. 

But the Howell Mill Starbucks baristas are joining a national solidarity sip-in on Labor Day as part of the unionized stores’ effort to win equal benefits and get Starbucks to the negotiating table. The sip-in is a show of solidarity and community outreach where employees and other supporters drink coffee and converse about various topics.

The NLRB’s complaint centers around Starbucks corporate providing raises and additional benefits to non-unionized stores, but withholding them from unionized locations. These benefits, which took effect at the beginning of August, include a standardized $15 per hour minimum wage, increased seniority pay raises, standardizing baristas’ ability to collect credit card tips, and relaxing dress code restrictions.

Many of these benefits were core demands of the first Starbucks store to unionize in Buffalo, New York last December.

“We initially announced it as a victory. That’s exactly what we had been asking for,” said Camden Mitchell, an organizer for Starbucks Workers’ United’s Southern region, who’s its liaison with the unionized locations here in Atlanta. 

But after announcing the changes in April, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz subsequently stated that Starbucks wouldn’t negotiate with the union and that unionized stores wouldn’t receive the benefits. Schultz claimed Starbucks corporate legally can’t provide them at unionized stores without first engaging in collective bargaining. 

Mitchell said otherwise, noting that Starbucks has refused to enter into contract negotiations with the unionized stores. That prompted the Howell Mill Starbucks to stage a one-day strike on July 17. 

After Schultz’s announcement that unionized stores wouldn’t get the new benefits, the Starbucks union filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the NLRB, and Workers United president Lynne Fox notified Starbucks that the union would waive bargaining rights over them.

Mitchell said Fox “sent multiple letters directly to corporate, waiving the right to bargain over these benefits and asking for them to be implemented immediately.”

But Starbucks didn’t comply, he said. It was at that point that the NLRB filed the Aug. 24 complaint.

With a standoff between the union and Starbucks over the benefits, the NLRB complaint could tip the scales.

The NLRB’s demands of Starbucks to remedy the situation include back pay of all withheld wages and benefits, implementing workers’ rights training for management, an apology letter from Starbucks corporate and an apology video from Schultz to the unionized stores. 

The demands signal a more robust challenge to Starbucks corporate from the NLRB. “The NLRB and some good judges have gone out on a limb,” said Mitchell. “It’s the most activist NLRB we’ve had in many many decades.” 

At the moment, the complaint carries no legal weight. A federal judge will hear oral arguments on October 26th and then decide to what extent, if any, Starbucks will have to meet the NLRB’s demands.

In the meantime, the NLRB’s support could further embolden workers at the Howell Mill and Ansley Mall stores, as they try to bring management to the negotiating table. Mitchell and other local Starbucks union organizers say management is stalling on contract talks in hopes that support for the union will die out. That’s what pushed the Howell Mill baristas to go on their one-day strike in mid-July. 

“This has been the strategy of Starbucks and other large companies for years. They want to force [unionized] workers to burn resources–and eventually burn the workers out entirely,” said Mitchell. 

The Howell Mill Starbucks’ sip-in, will be at 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 5 at the store, located at 1801 Howell Mill Rd NW, Atlanta, GA. Supporters from Starbucks Workers United and the Atlanta chapter of Democratic Socialists of America will be joining the event. 

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