Workers accuse Starbucks of using aggressive tactics to thwart union drives

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Starbucks said the allegations are not true and that the company is not anti-union, but "pro-partner."

Starbucks workers in the Buffalo area have accused the coffee-giant of deploying “disruptive and chaotic” tactics ever since they went public more than two months ago with a union campaign.

News 4 Investigates interviewed 10 workers and two leaders of Workers United Upstate NY, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union, who all said Starbucks has flooded stores with higher-ups from other markets, held meetings that are loaded with “anti-union” messaging, and told workers that they should vote against forming a union.  

They all said that a union would give them a seat at the table with Starbucks managers and executives to discuss important issues, such as pay raises and work schedules.

“We are at-will to a lot of things that Starbucks Corporate can just decide without any of our say, any of our opinion,” said Gianna Reeve, an employee at the Camp Road store in Hamburg. “We’re the ones on the frontlines. We are on the floors. We are making the coffee, pouring the lattes. But we don’t really get any sort of decision power in this when we are the ones who are affected by these decisions.”

In late August, workers at three Starbucks stores – one in Elmwood Village, the one on Camp Road in Hamburg, and one on Genesee Street in Cheektowaga – petitioned federal labor officials with their intent to form a union. Two other stores, the Walden-Anderson store in Cheektowaga and Transit Commons in Amherst, postponed union drives to focus efforts on the other locations.

“They shouldn’t have to walk through a minefield of threats and intimidation,” Gary Bonadonna, of Workers United Upstate NY, said of Starbucks workers in the Buffalo area. “Their workers’ lives were turned upside down as soon as they went public.”

A Starbucks spokesman denied that the company is trying to break up the union drive. He said the company often sends in help to markets where “partners” (that’s what Starbucks calls their employees) have raised complaints.  

“Our leaders fly into markets on a regular basis off of feedback and concerns that they get from their partners, all the time,” said Reggie Borges, director of corporate communications for Starbucks.

“Yes, there’s a union drive and a union effort that a group of partners at three stores have expressed a desire to do,” Borges said. “We’re not getting in the way of that. Our leaders are there to listen to all partners in the market because they recognize based off of the feedback that they heard that there’s some issues that need to be addressed.”

Starbucks has more than 8,000 company-operated stores in the United States. Not one is represented by a union.

Many observers believe that what happens in Buffalo could have a ripple effect that leads other stores across the nation to organize. Union leaders told News 4 Investigates that workers from other markets have already reached out to Buffalo leaders about unionizing.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson recently answered questions about the union drive in Buffalo during a television interview, in which he said that the reason the company uses the term “partners” instead of employees is because “we work together, and we collaborate.”

“We don’t think it is in partners’ best interest to put a third party in between the relationship that we’ve always shared that is grounded in our mission, our values and the culture that created this great company,” Johnson said on CNBC Market Alert.

Starbucks declined to be interviewed on camera with News 4 Investigates.

NLRB decision gives pro-union workers early win

Employees of the three Starbucks stores had expected the union vote to be over by now, but the process got delayed in September when Starbucks filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board.

Starbucks wanted all employees to vote, instead of each store individually.

That would have changed the organizing effort significantly by going from three stores to 20 stores, and by increasing the number of employees who can vote from roughly 60 to more than 450.

Pro-union workers accused Starbucks of stalling and diluting the vote a by adding more workers in the Buffalo-area to the voter pool.

“I think realistically it was just to try and delay the election or potentially have it so we can’t get a majority,” said Caroline Lerczak, a shift supervisor at Starbucks in Cheektowaga off Genesee Street.

Starbucks said that the purpose of its NLRB petition was to give all Buffalo-area employees a voice, not just some. In addition, Starbucks said it is not uncommon for an employee to pick up hours at other stores, which could have created a problem by mixing union workers with stores and other workers that lacked representation.

“Right now, if you just do those three stores, you’re not giving other partners a voice,” said Borges, the Starbucks spokesman. “You’re giving a select number of partners the opportunity to make decisions for somebody else.”

The issue is moot, now. At least for now.

Last week, the NLRB denied Starbucks’s petition, but the company said it is reviewing its options, including an appeal.

Meanwhile, Starbucks has kept a cache of executives and managers in the Buffalo area this entire time, to respond to worker complaints, the company said.

Pro-union workers, however, said the influx of new faces gets in the way of the daily flow and that they believe they are being spied on by the company.

“This methodology that they are using, and this strategy, is again pinning down our voice,” said Reeve, the Camp Road store employee. “They’re keeping us quiet so then we can’t discuss with each other. It’s just appalling, really.”

Fair labor principles and flooding stores with higher-ups

Michelle Eisen said she has been proud to work for Starbucks for most of the 11 years she has been with the company.

But the past few years have been different, she said.

Stores are detoriating and understaffed. Equipment malfunctioned. Customers complained more. 

At the time, Starbucks was nowhere to be seen, the workers said.

“Did it get worse during Covid? Absolutely,” Eisen said. “I mean, we felt like our safety was at risk. We felt like the concern was profits over partners. I mean, there were a lot of issues that got worse over Covid.”

Eisen said that the pro-union employees had a list of fair election principles that it wanted Starbucks executives to sign, but the company declined.

The principles included requests that there would not be repercussions for those who supported the union, give pro-union workers equal time to have meetings on company time, and give them equal space to post pro-union materials at any stores, among others.

Eisen said the company’s refusal to sign them sent workers a clear message that they were not going to be supportive or stay out of the way.

“In there, it states that we will be granted the same amount of time to hold our pro-union meetings on company time as the time that’s being allotted for us to come into these listening sessions, which have essentially become anti-union meetings,” she said.

“They’ve told us they are not in no uncertain terms signing those fair election principles. We can’t force them. And they have no desire to give us that allotted time to talk to our fellow partners in a safe environment where we don’t feel like we’re going to be retaliated against for having these conversations.”

Borges, the Starbucks spokesman, said fair election principles are not legal documents and the company has provided workers with a safe place to discuss the unions with the company.

“We believe in the process the National Labor Relations Board manages, and we will work with the NLRB to make sure there is a fair election,” Borges said. “We support secret ballot elections, so every partner can vote confidentially for what they believe to be best for them.”

One of the executives in Buffalo is Rossann Williams, an executive vice president, who joined Starbucks in 2004.

Williams explained by memo why she was in Buffalo with other out-of-town managers and executives. She said their presence in Buffalo is not “about whether we are pro-union or anti-union.”

“It’s quite simply that we are pro-Starbucks partners,” Williams said.

“As you know, out heritage and culture are built on the belief that by working directly together as partners, we can build a different kind of company,” Williams wrote in the memo. “We do that by listening, having real talk, and lifting one another up, always with Our Mission and Values at our core.”

In addition, Starbucks regional vice president and the regional director sent a joint letter to Buffalo workers last month. They said workers “deserve the facts to vote for what’s best for you.”

“Do your research and ask us anything – we’re here to help,” wrote Allyson Peck, regional vice president, and Deanna Pusatier, regional director.

Starbucks senior executive Rossann Williams mops a bathroom floor at a Buffalo-area store last month.

Videos and pictures obtained by News 4 Investigates showed the executives and managers, including Williams, doing menial tasks, such as mopping bathroom floors, picking up trash, and cleaning tables. One video showed Williams behind the counter pulling out a full garbage bag with at least seven employees, which made an already cramped space even tighter.

Pro-union employees said the visits from higher-ups have been disruptive.

“They are taking partners off the floor to talk to them, they are getting in the way of like the flow of business,” said William Westlake, a Starbucks employee, about the influx of higher-ups in the stores.

Also, the workers said the company’s history with other stores that tried to form a union gave them reason to be concerned.

For example, two Starbucks baristas in Philadelphia in June won a labor case earlier this year when Starbucks “unlawfully retaliated” against them for trying to organize a union two years ago. An administrative law judge found that Starbucks “closely monitored their public social media activity, attempted to gauge employees’ support for the employees’ efforts, and unlawfully spied on protected conversations one of the employees initiated with coworkers.” The judge ordered Starbucks to re-hire the two baristas with backpay.

A similar situation happened in 2008, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Starbucks illegally fired three baristas who supported a union at some Manhattan stores. According to The New York Times, the judge found that Starbucks broke the law by giving negative job evaluations to workers who supported the union drive and by banning employees from discussing the union while at work.

Richard Bensinger has 45 years under his belt as a union organizer. He said the “interference” that Starbucks is running in the Buffalo market is the worst he has ever seen.

“Why is Starbucks so afraid of giving their workers a voice?” Bensinger said.

Listening tours have some workers on edge

A Starbucks official said that purpose of the meetings the company has had here is to provide workers an opportunity to be heard on problems with their stores, and to get answers from leaders.

News 4 Investigates obtained the power point slides to one of these meetings in October.

Workers said the slideshow presentation was filled with anti-union messages, including:

“Lost 22% of its members over the past 5 years.”

“GAVE $341k to the [SEIU] on benefits for the officers and staff.”

“These rules give Workers United control over you.”

“$536.68 per year in dues. That comes out of paychecks after taxes.”

“Did you know Workers United Rochester Joint Board raised dues twice since 2015?”

One of the slides shown to Starbucks workers at a meeting with higher-ups in a local hotel in October

Reeve, the Camp Road Starbucks worker, said the meetings she has been to have had a “threatening tone.”

“I will be reprimanded if I don’t show up to these meetings and then I’m pushed and prodded and talked to about the union by people who have admitted, they said ‘Well, we don’t know a lot about unions, but we don’t think you need one and we want you to vote no,” Reeve said. “It’s very, very scary. Honestly, it feels really uncomfortable going to those meetings because it’s just unnerving.”

Borges, the Starbucks spokesman, said the company hopes workers attend the meetings but no one would be reprimanded if they failed to go. (Pro-union workers contend that they would not be paid since the meetings have been added to their schedules).

“Claims of intimidation or threatening are unequivocally false. … We routinely create the space and forums for open and honest conversation as it relates to establishing and maintaining a great work environment,” Borges said. “We’re creating a safe space, welcoming partner questions and providing answers and the full picture so every partner can make an informed decision.”

Williams, in her memo to employees, said Starbucks is hosting these meetings so they can share information and for “partners to ask questions.”

“And we want partners to know how unionizing would fundamentally change their direct relationship with Starbucks,” Williams wrote.

“We care deeply about our partners here in Buffalo, as we do in every market across the country, and we want to preserve our partner to partner relationship. While it is certainly our partners’ right to make their own decision – and one we fully respect – I do hope our partners will give us a chance as they make the best decision for themselves, their families and their fellow partners.”

Westlake, from the Camp Road store, said he does not appreciate Starbucks telling him or other workers how they should vote.

“We are also brought into these captive audience meetings where we get scheduled to go into them and have people like the regional vice president saying, ‘I want you to vote no on the union’ and saying that to every barista,” Westlake said.

Danka Dragic, who has worked at the Genesee Street store for two years, said the meetings, and the blitz of new managers and executives are tactics to interfere with pro-union discussions.

Several workers, including Dragic, said they feel as if they are always being watched.

“So, having these managers swarming in here definitely made it really hard to have conversations openly and candidly, especially with some individuals who might be a little more nervous on the union front,” Dragic said.

Borges, the Starbucks spokesman, said he has attended some of the meetings and the intent is not to intimidate workers. He denied that the company is trying to bust the union effort.

“Just to be clear, we believe that a union is not necessary within the way that we operate,” Borges said. “If we’re doing our job and we’re working together, you’re working directly with partners to address their concerns. You don’t need a third party involved.”

“Our leaders are coming in because there were concerns raised about the store experience that they want to address and that’s what they’re doing,” Borges said. “They’re spending time listening to all partners at all stores, not just the three that are unionizing. … We’re not anti-union by any stretch of the imagination. Any claims that we are, are categorically false.”

Both Starbucks and the Buffalo-area employees should find out by Christmas if the union drive was successful.

Ballots will be sent to voters at 5 p.m. on Nov. 10 and must be returned to the regional labor office by Dec. 8, 2021.

The ballot count will occur at 1 p.m. on Dec. 9.

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