This story was updated April 20 to include comments from Starbucks, Inc. 

Starbucks Workers’ United (SBWU) encouraged unionized stores around the country to hold a Day of Action on April 11, just three weeks after Starbucks’ new CEO, Laxman Narasimhan, took over from founder Howard Schultz. 

The day of action–which included rallies and some walkouts–comes hot on the heels of Schultz’s defiant testimony at a packed congressional hearing on March 29, under the threat of a subpoena, to respond to union-busting allegations. 

“The Starbucks coffee company unequivocally–and let me set the tone for this very early on–has not broken the law, Schultz said during the hearing, to derisive laughter from the gallery. But the  National Labor Relations Board has found Starbucks violated federal labor law about 1,300 times under Schultz’s watch, as reported in the L.A. Progressive. 

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, chaired by Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), called the hearing to grill Schultz over Starbucks’ refusal to negotiate contracts with unionized stores and the SBWU’s complaints over retaliatory firings for union organizing and other unfair labor practices that it filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). 

In early March, an NLRB administrative law judge ruled that Starbucks must reinstate seven workers fired in Buffalo, NY for union organizing, reopen a unionized store that had been closed and stop infringing upon workers’ right to unionize Judge Michael Rosas found that Starbucks had violated labor laws “hundreds of times” in Buffalo.

“We believe the allegations made by Workers United and the NLRB in these matters are meritless and that actions taken have been lawful and in alignment with established policies, not in retaliation for any partners’ support of union activities,” said Starbucks’ Senior Manager of Corporate Communications Andrew Tull. 

According to Tull, Starbucks has also been frequently attending bargaining sessions around the company including five in the Atlanta area. Tull claims that Starbucks has attended 24% of sessions proposed by Workers’ United. 

Atlanta Civic Circle spoke with Camden Mitchell, SBWU’s lead organizer for the South region,  to find out what the national Starbucks news means for local union organizing efforts and to get an update on labor actions and the struggle to win a contract for the three unionized Atlanta stores–located on the West Side, in Ansley Park and Alpharetta. 

Organizing momentum 

The three Starbucks stores in Atlanta that unionized last summer– Ansley Mall especially–have kept up a steady drumbeat of actions this year, like walkouts and one-day strikes. Some have been organized by SBWU nationally, others have been local initiatives–and a few have been on the spur of the moment in response to what workers characterize as mistreatment by management over hours and time off. 

As part of the national campaign, about 116 stores of the 293 unionized Starbucks across the country held a one-day action on March 22. Six of 22 stores in the SBWU South region–including the Ansley Mall and Alpharetta unionized stores–joined the labor protest, Mitchell said, and SBWU members showed up at an additional 12 stores in the region to pass out leaflets and information. 

“The goal is to keep building capacity,” he said. “The strategy hasn’t really changed. The goal is to continue building capacity, so the next action is 150 or 200 stores.” 

Congressional hearing’s effect

Besides Schultz, two Southern SBWU members–Jaysin Saxton from Augusta and Maggie Carter from Knoxville, TN–also testified at the March 29 congressional hearing. Both had been fired for organizing with SBWU, they said, and then reinstated by Starbucks after SBWU filed complaints with the NLRB over unfair labor practices.

According to Mitchell, these developments are generating more interest on the ground for unionizing among Starbucks employees. Mitchell wants to use this momentum to organize more Starbucks stores in the South. He said local SBWU organizers already have multiple leads on potential stores, with hopes of a big election push beginning soon. 

“All of these things are happening– the [NLRB] charges coming, Howard having to face a hearing,” said Mitchell. “The leads are heating up. It looks like we’re going to be filing [for union elections] at more stores now than we have been in the last couple of months.” 

To an outside observer, it may seem the recent NLRB rulings that Starbucks violated labor practices and the congressional hearing could be what tips the scales of the power dynamic between SBWU and Starbucks–and get unionized stores closer to winning contracts. 

Mitchell views it differently. “It isn’t so much the legal ramifications for Starbucks, because those can be delayed by the powers that be,” he said. Rather, for Starbucks employees at non-unionized stores, these developments are “giving them the courage to step forward and try and organize their stores now.” 

Contract negotiations between SBWU stores and Starbucks are still stalled, but SBWU union organizers like Mitchell think capacity-building is the way forward. They’re looking to continue to organize actions, unionize more stores and put more pressure on the coffee giant.

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