NLRB judge issues strong nationwide order vs Starbucks labor law-breaking
Workers demonstrate outside a New York Starbucks. | Seth Wenig/AP

BUFFALO—A National Labor Relations Board judge has literally thrown the book—218 pages and dozens of unfair labor practices counts–at Starbucks and owner Howard Schultz, saying the monster coffee company broke labor law at least 70 times in the Buffalo area alone in a campaign it’s extended against unionization nationwide.

And in his March 1 ruling, Administrative Law Judge Michael Rosas ordered its summary and 13 pages of remedies posted in every Starbucks in the U.S. After all, Rosas said, the law-breaking is nationwide, too.

Rosas also ordered Starbucks back to the bargaining table. Last year, under pressure, Schultz had set a three-week window for talks. But when the workers twice showed up and zoomed in with proposals in hand, his management team and union-buster walked out after five minutes each time and never came back.

Schultz himself also broke labor law when he came to Buffalo to try to thwart the organizing drive, Rosas said. Schultz did so after flooding the previously ignored area with dozens of new “supervisors.”

So Rosas mandated Schultz be present when NLRB officials read the remedies aloud to workers and post that notice at every store “for the duration of the organizing drive.” And a video of that session must go nationwide, including to all 2,500 stores, Rojas added.

The firm must also post the remedies electronically on all its platforms and otherwise widely disclose the roll call of its wrongdoing and the NLRB-required orders to cease and desist.

Rosas also ordered Starbucks to reinstate seven fired Buffalo workers—Cassie Fleischer, Angel Krempa, Kellen Higgins, Edwin Park, Daniel Rojas Jr., Brian Nuzzo, and Nathan Tarnow-ski—with full back pay plus compensation for costs they incurred as a result of being jobless and mandated compensation for dozens of other workers whom the firm illegally disciplined.

He mandated Starbucks to reopen one profitable Buffalo store, Transit Commons, which it closed in retaliation for unanimous pro-union support there.  The labor law-breaking was so onerous at another Buffalo store, Camp Road, before the union election loss there that Rojas threw out the vote and ordered bargaining between its workers and Starbucks.

Despite Starbucks’ actions against the Buffalo organizing drive by employees aided by Starbucks Workers United (SWU), a Service Employees campaign, the workers won elections in Buffalo Starbucks stores and word spread among its tens of thousands of workers nationwide.

That prompted further organizing drives and wins and a nationwide response by Schultz and his management team, so Rosas applied his order to the firm everywhere.

As a result, workers have filed for union recognition elections in 407 stores so far, and won 292, while Starbucks has broken labor law 1,700 times, consolidated in 70 complaints to the NLRB, SWU said.

The latest filings were at stores in Chicago’s Greektown, Allen Park, Mich., Sacramento, Knoxville, Tenn., Branford, Conn., Gilbert, Ariz., Sutton, W. Va., and the Boston suburb of Somerville. The latest wins were in Houston and in Lynbrook, N.Y.

It also comes after a Feb. 27 celebration at the Starbucks store in Astoria, Queens, welcoming back illegally fired barista Austin Locke. He won his job back under New York City law, not the National Labor Relations Act.

“Getting reinstated is not just a win for me but a win for the working class,” Locke told the crowd. “Let this be an example to all: in New York City, you can’t mess with workers. Starbucks: stop union busting and reinstate all fired workers! Solidarity with people’s struggles all around the world!”

Buffalo Starbucks workers victimized by Schultz’s labor law-breaking exulted over Rosas’ ruling. “This win is single-handedly the most exciting thing that’s happened in this campaign thus far,” said Michael Sanabria, a barista from the Transit Commons Starbucks. His store was the one Starbucks closed and Rosas said must reopen.

“Having to reinstate all of these workers, reopen the first Starbucks location closed in the name of union-busting, and most importantly, post notices in every single store across the country for the duration of the Starbucks organizing campaign is such a massive win for us, and for the labor movement as a whole,” Salabria said.

“After waiting through months of Starbucks’ stalling tactics, this will reinvigorate and re-energize the momentum of this movement,” he told Starbucks Workers United.

“This decision results from months of tireless organizing by workers in cafes across the country demanding better working conditions in the face of historical, monumental, and now deemed illegal union-busting,” added Michelle Eisen, a barista from the Elmwood store.

Rosas’ ruling describes, in detail, Starbucks’s union-busting. It ranged from disciplining workers for not wearing white shoes to illegally closing the Transit Commons store permanently. And it included closing the Niagara Falls Boulevard store “to eliminate standing water” but also to transfer NFB’s overwhelmingly anti-union workers to the pro-union Genesee Street tore.

The point, Rojas wrote, was to pack voting rolls at Genesee Street and beat the union.

In one instance of labor law-breaking, Starbucks disciplined one pro-union Buffalo worker for wearing a “Memphis 7” button to work. The button honors the seven workers Starbucks fired in the Tennessee city for organizing the store there. Starbucks closed that store, too. It claims the Buffalo worker’s button violated the company handbook.

Workers described Starbucks as ignoring the Buffalo area until the organizing drive began, then flooding it with outside “supervisors” who illegally monitored workers, used headphones to listen in on private over-the-air conversations, to make—and then later break—promises to improve and first offer new benefits, then withdraw them.

The whole ruling was immediately sent to the full labor board for review, and that’s not the only federal pressure Starbucks in general and Schultz, in particular, will face.

Schultz, then the CEO, rejected a request from Senate Labor Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., to voluntarily testify, offering to send the company’s communications director instead. So Sanders scheduled a committee vote on March 8 to subpoena Schultz, who still owns 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.