Injunction shows NLRB fed up with Starbucks’ labor law-breaking
A customer makes a purchase at a Starbucks coffee shop. | Matt Rourke/AP

MEMPHIS, Tenn. —A federal judge’s injunction against Starbucks, ordering bosses to take back seven workers it illegally fired for organizing the coffee chain’s store in Memphis, Tenn., is one indication the National Labor Relations Board is getting increasingly fed up with the firm’s constant and vicious labor law-breaking.

As a matter of fact, the board is so exasperated that Buffalo Regional Director, Linda Leslie, filed a request earlier this year with the federal court there for a nationwide 10j) injunction—its strongest sanction–against the monster chain’s rampant unfair labor practices, the formal name for labor law-breaking. Leslie said its traditional remedies against corporate malefactors can’t reverse the damage.

Starbucks’ law-breaking isn’t stopping Workers United from winning, store by store, either. It’s filed, on behalf of the local workers, for 360 union recognition elections nationwide and the unionizers won 211 of them so far, including five out of six in Tennessee. The loss was an 8-8 tie in Smyrna. The wins included Memphis, 11-3, among 20 workers.

That victory occurred after Starbucks tried to intimidate its baristas into voting “no,” by firing the seven. The workers didn’t back down, and neither did Jennifer Abruzzo, the NLRB’s General Counsel and chief litigator and operating officer.

On August 18, Abruzzo won a 10(j) injunction against Starbucks from U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman in Memphis. She ordered Starbucks to take the workers back and obey labor law by recognizing and bargaining with the union.

“This is a crucial step in ensuring these workers, and all Starbucks workers, can freely exercise their right to join together to improve their working conditions and form a union,” said Abruzzo. “Starbucks, and other employers, should take note that the NLRB will continue to vigorously protect workers’ right to organize without interference from their employer.”

The Starbucks workers, engaged from coast to coast in a ground-up organizing drive with the help of Workers United, a Service Employees sector, are part of the mass movement of exploited low-wage no-benefit workers who have had it up to here and won’t take it anymore.

Those workers—many in their 20s and early 30s like Starbucks baristas—turn to multiple paths of resistance against Starbucks and other greedy corporate goliaths, while demanding better pay and protections, worker rights and respect on the job.

One is unionizing, usually on their own with later help from established unions. A second is walkouts. When Starbucks in early August suddenly fired the original lead organizer of its first store to unionize, in Buffalo, the whole store walked out. The firing and walkout occurred after Leslie’s national injunction request.

And a third is to seek, and get, better jobs, leaving the low-wage employers in the lurch.

They’re also getting support from one of the nation’s longest and strongest political supporters of workers, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt. On August 20, he walked a picket line in Philadelphia and the next day, trailed by cameras and reporters, he greeted a large crowd of Massachusetts Starbucks United members picketing a store in Boston. The video is on SWBUnited’s twitter feed.

“After learning about the organizing effort, Starbucks directed a wide variety of coercive measures at its employees,” the NLRB said in its injunction request to Lipman, which it uses only when more traditional—and weak—labor law remedies don’t make the workers whole and don’t deter corporate lawbreakers. Those penalties are reinstating fired workers with net back pay and posting a “we-broke-the-law-and-promise-not-to-do-it-again” notice.

In Memphis, Starbucks disciplined the worker who began the organizing drive, instituted close supervision of all 20 workers, closed the Memphis Starbucks on days when the organizers invited the public in to show support and illegally yanked pro-union materials from the store bulletin board.

When all those moves drew media attention, from local TV stations all the way up to the New York Times and the Washington Post, Starbucks fired all seven workers on the same day, including five of the six Memphis organizing committee members. It was obvious retaliation, which is illegal, too.

Judge Lipman’s 10(j) ruling in Memphis isn’t the NLRB’s sole legal move against the coffee shop chain, whose CEO, Howard Schultz, has repeatedly vowed his stores will never unionize.

In her nationwide 10(j) request, Buffalo Regional Director Leslie said Starbucks broke labor law more than 200 times at its Buffalo area stores, and several times at a Rochester, N.Y., store. Its law-breaking included illegal solicitation of grievances and promises of benefits if workers would vote against the union, promising a pay raise if they did so, promising—in at least one store—better mental health benefits and promising extensive store renovations at several Starbucks.

But it’s also engaged in close surveillance of the workers, illegally spied on union activities, illegally quizzed workers who distributed and wore Workers United pins, and closed at least one Buffalo store and the café at another. And in at least one Buffalo  store, a manager threatened workers would get no raises if they voted union.

And on August 16, NLRB Regional Director Reginald Hooks in Seattle—Starbucks’s headquarters—filed a 10-store complaint against the firm for multiple instances of labor law-breaking in Seattle, Everett and Bellingham, Wash., and Portland and Eugene, Ore.

The law-breaking in “Hi Partner” letters to all workers, contained various threats. One was a wage and benefit freeze until a contract is ratified, accompanying a warning that “negotiations can often take more than a year–if a contract is reached at all.” And “to maintain a direct relationship with” Starbucks, workers must vote against unionizing—a veiled threat to fire those who vote union.

Hooks’ remedy is to distribute the we-won’t-do-it-again notice by text messages, social media and e-mail to all workers employed since April 1, not just post it on the store bulletin boards. Hooks also wants mandated training for Starbucks managers on obeying labor law. He set a hearing on the case for November 8, which is Election Day. That won’t be a problem for the workers, Washington and Oregon vote entirely by mail.

Hooks’s complaint is notable for other reasons. It was filed on Starbucks’s home turf, it included five Seattle Starbucks and it included Schultz’s contact information as a defendant,, and his office address, 2401 Utah Ave. South Suite 800, Seattle, Wash., 98134-1436.  That’s information consumers can use to protest to Starbucks.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.