Atlanta’s unionized Howell Mill and Ansley Mall Starbucks stores still have not received contract negotiation dates from Starbucks–almost two months after the coffeeshop giant announced that it would start first-contract negotiations with unionized stores on a store-by-store basis. 

The Howell Mill and Ansley Mall stores have engaged in several direct actions to pressure management to come to the bargaining table, including one-day strikes, since voting to join the Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) union in June and July, respectively. 

Elsewhere in SBWU’s South region, unionized stores in Miami, Birmingham, Knoxville, and Memphis have begun talks with Starbucks to schedule contract negotiations, according to Camden Mitchell, the South’s lead SBWU organizer. 

But stores in the Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) union that actually have been able to get to the negotiation table with Starbucks report that the talks have stalled within just a few minutes, because Starbucks representatives are objecting to national SBWU negotiators joining the meetings via video call and then walking out. 

Initially, SBWU wanted its National Bargaining Committee to hold collective negotiations with Starbucks representatives on behalf of the over 250 stores that have joined the union. But Starbucks refused, saying it would only negotiate with individual stores, which typically have only 10 to 20 baristas. 

In a sign of the rise in tensions between union members and Starbucks, SBWU called a national strike on Nov. 17, shortly after unionized Starbucks locations across the country saw their negotiations with corporate quickly stall.

To put more pressure on Starbucks management to come to the bargaining table and engage in negotiations, SBWU representatives have said, 100 unionized stores on Nov. 17 held a single-day national strike, #RedCupRebellion, to coincide with Starbucks’ release of their annual holiday cups. Atlanta’s two unionized stores didn’t participate, Mitchell said, because they were not “strike ready,” as they continue to seek a negotiation date.

SBWU also started filing unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in late October, alleging that Starbucks is refusing to bargain in good faith by walking out of negotiation talks. In response, Starbucks has filed 50 mirror ULP charges with the NLRB over the last month–one for each store in the abortive talks–echoing the bad faith claims.

What’s next for “good faith” bargaining? 

In negotiating language, “good faith” means that parties are negotiating by the rules they’ve established, with the intention of actually making a deal. 

The NLRB declined to say if it has opened an investigation into the ULPs filed by Starbucks and SWBU. Until the NLRB investigation resolves the ULP charges, the parties are still free to attempt negotiations, but they’d have to find a resolution to the video call issue on their own, one expert in NLRB contract negotiations told Atlanta Civic Circle.

The sticking point that has aborted the contract talks is over who should be on the bargaining committee for each unionized store. 

A unionized shop and management typically don’t discuss who should be allowed on each side’s bargaining committee before the first bargaining session, said Joshua Flax, the deputy director for policy and strategy at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), which provides free conflict resolution services to negotiating parties. Flax is not involved in the Starbucks negotiations and was speaking generally.

In a statement released on their One Starbucks site, Starbucks claims that SBWU representatives are breaking NLRB rules by recording sessions and bringing members to the bargaining table via video call. The coffeeshop giant maintains that only in-person representatives of each local store should join the talks.

But the individual SBWU store baristas engaging in the talks want SBWU national bargaining committee members to join them through a video call. SBWU contends that it is not recording the sessions–which would be against NLRB rules–but that the rules don’t prohibit introducing negotiators via video. 

To prepare for contract negotiations, Flax said, each side’s chief negotiators meet, agree on ground rules to govern the negotiation, and schedule dates for the sessions.

But the two sides usually don’t discuss the specifics of who is allowed in those sessions ahead of time, he said. It’s when the sessions actually occur that each side finds out who’s going to be involved in the talks from the other side.

That seems to be the main point of contention between Starbucks and SBWU. Though both parties legally have a “duty to bargain,” neither side can force the other to change who is on their bargaining committee. 

To resolve the impasse, the two sides could engage a mediation service like the FMCS to try and find common ground, but that’s unlikely to happen in first contract negotiations, Flax said, because both sides would have to agree to mediation. He explained that 90% of the mediations that the FMCS handles are when a union contract is already in place, and the union and management disagree over points for renewing it.

Instead, the most direct way for SBWU and Starbucks to determine who can be at the table is to file ULPs, which trigger the NLRB to investigate the negotiation proceedings. According to the NLRB’s ULP process chart, it would then either issue an injunction against the party it determines is blocking negotiations that directs them to resume “in good faith,” or an NLRB regional director would send the case forward to a court hearing for a federal judge to make a determination. 

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for the over 250 unionized stores to win a contract with Starbucks: At one year from unionizing, a store’s workers can vote to decertify their union election and dissolve their union. Dec. 9 will mark the one-year anniversary of the first Starbucks union election victory at stores in New York. 

If the Starbucks stores in the South region are unable to obtain a contract–or even negotiations–with Starbucks by the one-year mark, said SBWU’s Mitchell, the union will ask the NLRB to rule on pushing back the decertification window due to the lack of “good faith” negotiations.

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