Pittsburgh case reflects depth of illegal moves by Starbucks
A Starbucks sign hangs outside a Starbucks coffee shop in downtown Pittsburgh on June 26, 2019. The National Labor Relations Board says Starbucks is violating U.S. labor law by withholding pay hikes and other benefits from stores that have voted to unionize. The labor board’s Seattle office filed the complaint late Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. | Gene J. Puskar/AP

PITTSBURGH—A comprehensive case out of Pittsburgh shows the depths to which Starbucks will stoop in labor law-breaking to stop its workers from unionizing.

The offenses the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office cataloged were so many and so varied that Starbucks Workers United, the Service Employees sector that aids the grass-roots organizing drives from coast to coast, asked the board to impose its strongest punishment: Going to federal court for an injunction to immediately halt the violations.

It didn’t get that order, called a 10(j) injunction, because the board reserves that for the worst cases, where labor law’s normal—read “weak”—punishments don’t prevent immediate and irreparable harm to workers.

But the board’s formal 19-page case revealed Starbucks’s offenses and its sticks-with-an-occasional-carrot tactics in fighting its 55 workers at four Pittsburgh-area stores: Penn Center East, Craig Street, Market Square, and Bloomfield. They’re a variation of what bosses do nationwide to stop union drives.

The worst offenses were three outright closure threats, from late March 2022 through April 18. Manager Adrienne Busch made those threats at so-called “captive audience” meetings at the 425 Craig Street store if its employees voted to go union.

The board’s regional director in Pittsburgh, Nancy Wilson, said “no” to the injunction, but “yes” to other remedies proposed against Starbucks. One unusual penalty/remedy: Letting board agents monitor and physically visit the Pittsburgh Starbucks stores, unhindered, for 60 days after a pro-worker ruling—if there is one—to ensure Starbucks obeys it.

The document showed Busch took the lead in opposing the union drive, though other managers occasionally added their own threats.

Besides the closure threats, which are illegal, Busch declared Starbucks would deny transfers to workers who want them. And if workers who suffered that denial quit and then sought Starbucks jobs at non-union stores elsewhere, the firm wouldn’t hire them, Busch told the March 30 captive audience meeting.

Reading between the lines, that’s called outlawing workers for their union activity, and it too is illegal.

Threatened to have pay withheld

Busch also told workers that if they went union, Starbucks would deny them pay raises and college tuition reimbursements, said if the union won, “bargaining would start from scratch,” declared choosing the union would be “futile,” and threatened to deny benefits non-union workers would get.

That denial is a company-wide policy, enunciated by former CEO Howard Schultz. The NLRB complaint names him as the recipient, as it was issued before he quit.

Three times, Busch illegally spied on the workers. Three more times she illegally quizzed them about union activities or their opinions about unionizing. So did Penn Center manager Chase Friacola, once.

Starbucks offered occasional carrots—benefit enticements—sometimes within weeks of threats to yank the same benefits. Two other carrots which Market Square manager Joe Rowe promised: Hiring a security guard and rehabbing the store bathroom, both if the workers voted the union down.

All of this was enough to convince NLRB regional director Wilson to issue a detailed complaint against Starbucks, including Busch and other managers, and Schultz. If the two sides don’t settle, there’ll be a regional office hearing on the case on January 23.

Wilson’s complaint gratified Starbucks Workers United, even without the injunction.

“These actions generated and created a coercive atmosphere at Starbucks stores in and around Pittsburgh” even in stores where there’s no organizing petition yet, Starbucks Workers United said in its initial complaint to Wilson’s office.

Starbucks “demonstrates a general disregard for” obeying labor law, it added. The firm’s “widespread… campaign to threaten and coerce employees in Pittsburgh and elsewhere warrants broad relief on a regional or broader basis.

Instead, Wilson demanded Starbucks post a notice that it broke the law and with an accompanying promise not to do so again. But Wilson demanded an NLRB agent be able to visit the four Pittsburgh Starbucks stores, without hindrance from local bosses, to ensure the firm obeys.

The NLRB’s charges against Starbucks in Pittsburgh are “incredibly validating for all the workers here. We have suffered under their anti-union campaign for the better part of a year now,” tenured Pittsburgh Starbucks worker Jacob Welsh told Starbucks Workers United.

“We have a lot of workers who are being lied to, mistreated, threatened, bribed, or fired, and it’s heartening to see the NLRB has decided to pursue legal recourse regarding Starbucks’ behavior in the Steel City.” That Pittsburgh “behavior,” Starbucks Workers United notes, includes illegally firing eight pro-union workers.


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.