BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Half of the Starbucks stores in the Buffalo region are unionized, but there remains a long road ahead before members of Workers United and the coffee giant ratify any labor contracts.

Right now, the attention is on the National Labor Relations Board Region 3 Office that covers Buffalo, which has filed for injunctive relief in federal court that seeks a cease-and-desist order against Starbucks to stop unfair labor practices.

The NLRB also accused Starbucks of failing to bargain in good faith with the union. As a result, the NLRB wants seven employees reinstated and an interim bargaining order that would allow members of stores that have not voted yet to begin contract negotiations with Starbucks.

In addition to the federal action, the NLRB Buffalo Office has 70 active charges that union members have filed against the coffee giant, such as allegations of retaliatory firings, threatening workers, and enforcing work rules with a heavier hand at unionized stores.

And Starbucks has filed 22 of its own complaints against Workers United, pointing the finger at the union for failing to bargain in good faith. Starbucks said union members recorded contract meetings and posted sessions online, which the NLRB prohibits.

Since the first store unionized in Buffalo late last year, Workers United said 15 of its members have been fired in retaliation for supporting the union.

William Westlake said Starbucks fired him at the Hamburg store for wearing a suicide awareness pin in memory of a colleague. His separation letter states that he violated the dress code three times, in addition to clocking in late for two shifts.

Starbucks told Westlake the blue suicide prevention pin violated dress code policy

“As a result of the union campaign, they’ve decided to start cracking down on things like this,” Westlake said.

Michael Sanabria, a 2019 district Barista champion, said he was fired at the Transit Commons store in East Amherst for attending his grandmother’s funeral and not finding someone to fill his shift.

According to his separation letter, a manager viewed his absence as a no show, even though the company’s rules do not require employees to find shift replacements for sudden events and emergencies.

Starbucks said in a statement that Sanabria appealed his firing and has since been reinstated with back pay after he provided “additional information and documentation for his absence.” He returned to work Monday morning.

In what the union termed as an “escalation of their anti-union war,” Starbucks late last week fired Jovan Draves and Connor Mauche, both from the Delaware/Chippewa store. Nationwide, more than 130 union members have been dismissed, the union said, although more than a dozen were ordered to be reinstated after favorable rulings from the National Labor Relations Board in other markets.

Michael Sanabria was fired by Starbucks, but reinstated on appeal this week.

There are about 9,000 Starbucks stores, with 250 unionized, and workers at another 50 stores that need to vote.

Starbucks said allegations of retaliation are false and any increase in discipline against union supporters is “reflective of an increase in policy violations.”

“No Starbucks partner has been, or will be, disciplined for supporting or engaging in lawful union activity—but interest in a union does not exempt partners from following policies and procedures that apply to all partners,” Starbucks said. “Our partners receive training on our policies and are aware that failing to uphold them can result in termination.”

In addition, Starbucks said on its website that it has made “extensive efforts” to move ahead with more than 200 sets of contract negotiations, which have to be done by individual stores that unionized.

“It’s disappointing that Workers United would begin this process by creating unnecessary delays and needless confusion by distorting the facts on social media,” the company said on its website.

NLRB complaints

Many of the complaints filed by Buffalo-area union members mirror those filed against Starbucks in other markets.

For example, on behalf of workers at three stores in the Missouri/Kansas market, the union filed nine charges against Starbuck alleging unfair labor practices, including more strictly enforcing dress code and time-off rules at union stores, and telling employees that they might not get previously promised pay increases if they voted in favor of a union.

In October, Administrative Law Judge Arthur J. Amchan handed down a blistering decision that required reinstatement of four employees, including one he said would be “hard to imagine a clearer case of discriminatory discharge.”

“A willingness to discriminatorily discharge one employee makes it more likely that an employer will discriminate against another,” Amchan wrote in his decision.

Starbucks said it “strongly disagrees” with the ruling and will appeal.

“Substantial evidence of misconduct by Union representatives and the NLRB was presented following an election in our Overland Park store” Starbucks said. “This vital factor was ignored in the ALJ’s decision to reinstate partners that broke policies. Additionally, we maintain that the separated partners named in this ruling violated multiple policies, procedures and safety standards.”

In August, a Tennessee U.S. District Judge Sheryl H. Lipman ordered Starbucks to reinstate seven employees, who the union referred to as the “Memphis Seven” after the NLRB petitioned the court for injunctive relief to restrain Starbucks from continuing unfair labor practices.

“The Board’s evidence provides reasonable cause to support the conclusion that Starbucks violated [The National Labor Relations Act] by terminating the Memphis Seven because it provides evidence consistent with the theory that Starbucks discriminatorily applied its policies to the Memphis Seven when terminating them,” Lipman wrote.

Starbucks said that interest in a union does not exempt partners from following policies.

We continue to ground our decisions in our policies and our Mission and Values, and in alignment with labor and employment laws. 

Westlake said he could not recall Starbucks ever enforcing dress codes until stores began to unionize.

William Westlake was fired by Starbucks for wearing a suicide prevention pin

Westlake said union members got written up for wearing the wrong shade of color of clothing and for being late five minutes to their shifts.

“No customer cares about this,” Westlake said. “It doesn’t impact the store at all, and for years and years Starbucks has operated not enforcing any of these things, and yet now they want to throw the book at us as a way to make it impossible.”

In October, Starbucks said that most of the charges the union has filed with the NLRB have not been evaluated for merit.

As for the NLRB’s federal case, Starbucks said its decisions “are grounded in both our policies and our Mission and Values and are aligned with labor and employment laws.”

“We appreciate every opportunity to share the facts, address inaccuracies and defend our actions as we work side-by-side with our partners to reinvent Starbucks for the future,” a company spokesman said.

Experts chime in

The flurry of action between the union and Starbucks is not unprecedented, said Wilma Liebman, a labor lawyer and former chairwoman of the NLRB. Rather, union organizing was flat for years, she said.

“It may look unique or unprecedented because we haven’t really had organizing campaigns of this magnitude and extent for a long time,” Liebman said.

What does make this unionizing effort unique, Liebman said, is the disconnect with how Starbucks portrays itself as an enlightened, liberal-minded company compared with how it has handled itself during a new wave of worker activism.

“Amazon’s never tried to do anything like that,” Liebman said. “It’s discordant. It’s a disconnect in terms of their messages.”

Roger King, a labor relations attorney with more than 40 years of experience, said many consumers are getting the impression that Starbucks is under union siege, but the numbers say otherwise.

Less than 3% of Starbucks’ stores are in unions, and in Buffalo, where the effort was launched, only half the stores have voted to join, he said.

King said Starbucks is a reputable company and cautions consumers from jumping to conclusions too quickly.

“I do know this company is sophisticated enough that they’re not going to go out and just willy nilly fire people,” King said. “That would be suicidal, it would make no sense.”

Liebman said a big issue is how national labor laws in the United States have not deterred companies from attempting to bust union efforts. The laws are too weak and outdated to be effective anymore, she said.

“If you want to avoid a union, it doesn’t cost that much to violate the law and engage in unfair labor practices that are intended to discourage unionization,” she said. “There’s no incentive to strictly comply if you’re really dead set on avoiding unionization.”

Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.