Baristas at an Alpharetta Starbucks narrowly won a union election on Jan. 5 by a razor-thin 11-10 vote. 

That makes the store, located at the intersection of Crabapple and Houze Roads, the third metro Atlanta Starbucks to unionize since last June and the 21st store in the South to join Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), which represents the vast majority of unionized Starbucks workers.

The Alpharetta store now joins the Ansley Mall and Howell Mill stores–and almost 270 unionized stores nationally–that have been struggling to get Starbucks to negotiate a contract for the past year. According to Camden Mitchell, SBWU’s lead organizer for its South region, both the Ansley Mall and Howell Mill employees were finally able to schedule talks in December with Starbucks corporate representatives, who walked out immediately.

“They continue to refuse to negotiate in the hybrid format,” said Mitchell. “The bargaining hasn’t really gone any further than that.” 

The SBWU wanted its representatives to negotiate a single contract for the over 260 unionized U.S. Starbucks stores, which represent almost 7,000 total employees, but Starbucks declined, saying it would only negotiate with each store individually. Since local baristas are not experienced in union contract negotiations, SBWU adopted a hybrid strategy, where a national SBWU representative would call in via Zoom to support each store’s employees in their scheduled meeting with Starbucks representatives. 

Starbucks and SBWU have been fighting over this issue for months, with Starbucks objecting to the presence of an SBWU representative via Zoom at negotiations, and both sides have filed numerous unfair labor practice complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The NLRB ruled Dec. 27 that Starbucks failed to negotiate in good faith at 21 stores in the Pacific Northwest. In labor relations, “good faith” is a legal term that requires meaningful participation in collective bargaining from both sides. 

The NLRB ruling restarts the negotiation clock for the 21 stores, which each have one-year to win a contract from Starbucks. Otherwise, employees who don’t support the union can move to try and decertify it at their stores. 

More immediately, SBWU wants to use this ruling as a springboard to push Starbucks to engage in substantive contract negotiations nationally. “The complaint was filed in Washington and Oregon, but we want to get it changed to national,” said Mitchell. 

 Before any local stores schedule additional contract negotiations with Starbucks, he added, SBWU is asking the store’s members for permission to send a letter on their behalf to Starbucks to reiterate that they will continue including a national SBWU representative at each meeting under the hybrid negotiation approach. 

The letter then states that if Starbucks is not open to negotiating in that way, it’d be best for all parties to postpone negotiations. According to Mitchell, this tactic is to save SBWU members from wasting their time–both unionized local employees, who must take time off work for the contract negotiations, and SBWU staff who must travel around the country for the meetings. 

Starbucks has claimed it is working diligently to keep the collective bargaining moving via its site, which the coffee giant uses to update the public on the union proceedings.

“Starbucks has consistently urged workers united to engage meaningfully and directly in the bargaining process, only to be frustrated by Worker’s United refusals to bargain in person,” it said in a Dec. 30 statement

While Starbucks insists it is trying to work things out with the unionized employees, SBWU has filed multiple union-busting complaints with the NLRB. The union’s South region alone has filed three such complaints recently. SBWU South is pushing for Starbucks to reinstate Will Suarez, Jared Saxton, and Ashe Bennett, who worked at a Covington, Ga. store which lost a union vote earlier this year. 

A federal judge in Tennessee ordered Starbucks to reinstate seven employees fired in Memphis in 2022 under similar circumstances.  As of December, the NLRB has filed several injunction requests in federal court asking a judge to require Starbucks to reinstate union supporters found to be illegally fired. 

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