Will Starbucks Workers Ever Get a Contract?

In December 2021, a group of Starbucks Baristas in Buffalo NY voted to form a union, Starbucks Workers United, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Their example spread like wildfire, with employees at dozens and then hundreds of other locations voting to join the union. Today more than 10,000 workers at 440 stores have come under the union’s banner. For the first time in this century it seemed possible that a major American consumer brand would “go union” and workers suffering low pay and unpredictable schedules could find their lives transformed. Instead their effort is becoming a lesson in the ways that current US labor law fails to protect the right to organize.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is supposed to prevent employers from retaliating against workers who exercise that right. However, as a practical matter, if you are punished or fired for supporting a union in your place of work, the Board will take months if not years to make you whole – longer if the employer chooses to appeal the decision in the courts. And while the NLRA requires employers to bargain with a union chosen by its workers, there is no provision for arbitration in a deadlock, giving the employer a powerful incentive to avoid reaching agreement on a first contract that would establish the union in their enterprise. In principle, US labor law protects your right to join a union; in practice, your employer exercises a near-veto on that right.

Seeing the increasing popularity of the union, Starbucks could have embraced the development and chosen a high road business strategy, mitigating the costs of a union contract by improving employee retention and leaning into an identity as a worker-friendly brand. But that’s not the direction CEO Howard Schultz took. As revealed in Spring 2023 hearings before the Senate Labor Committee, Schultz chose the road of massive resistance to his employees and their wishes. At that time the union had already filed more than 500 Unfair Labor Practice charges against the company for things like surveillance and retaliation aimed at union supporters. And Schultz’s negotiators were stalling in bargaining towards a first contract. Starbucks had no intention of allowing its employees to secure the benefits of union membership and has successfully confined the union to a small fraction of its 9000 stores.

Schultz has now retired, and in April 2024 Starbucks and the union announced progress in contract negotiations. We must hope and pray that these prove successful and that the company comes to respect the rights of its employees.

Since the time Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum, Catholic Social Teaching has upheld workers’ right to organize. Clearly the current framework of American labor law fails to protect that right, and it’s time to fix that law so it does.

3 replies
  1. Joseph F Drake
    Joseph F Drake says:

    The protections of the NLRB and labor laws are rather limited, yet some corporate leaders hope to eventually get the Supreme Court to declare the NLRA unconstitutional. In fact the Court recently overturned a fair and reasonable NLRB regulation when Starbucks declined to drop the matter. All this makes me worry that Starbucks is engaged in a delaying tactic, hoping to find some way to make the union go away.
    I engaged in a little support work for the Starbucks Workers before serious negotiations began I think Starbucks executives are deluded if they think they can make the union go away. These workers were determined. Even if corporate leaders got the current conservative Court to further limit labor law rights, I do not believe they or others in the new labor insurgency will give up.
    Wouldn’t it be far better for these wealthy people to recognize the justice of labor’s cause as described in Rerum Novarum?

  2. Laurie Konwinski
    Laurie Konwinski says:

    Thank you for clarifying what has been going on with Starbucks and its union-busting activities. In Ithaca NY, where I live, three Starbucks stores unionized and then the corporation CLOSED them. Of course this has happened in many other places as well. It would be good to know if there is an organized effort to pressure the new Starbucks CEO.

  3. Allan B Darr
    Allan B Darr says:

    Montey and politics talk for this company. They have spent millions denying workers’ rights. And recently, the SCOTUS, an arm of the GOP, ruled against the NLRB resulting in a decision against how the workers are return to work.
    It is my opinion, affiliating with the Teamsters will provide more power and strength to the workers in their ability to organize the company.
    Not one of us is greater than all of us.

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