In June, Starbucks permanently closed its busiest store in Ithaca, New York, after the newly unionized baristas there went on a short strike to protest unsanitary conditions. In July, Chipotle shuttered a restaurant in Augusta, Maine, shortly after its workers petitioned for a vote to become the nation’s first unionized Chipotle. In August, Trader Joe’s closed its wine shop in New York City’s Union Square just days before that store’s workers were to unveil plans to seek a union election. Also in August, Amy’s Kitchen shut down its 330-employee frozen-food operation in San Jose as a union drive was gathering momentum.
Labor leaders have denounced these closings as deliberate moves to discourage and defeat unionization—to warn workers at these corporations’ other stores and operations that bad things can happen if they seek to unionize. But company officials insist that these weren’t union-busting moves, but rather innocent steps to close operations that had problems. Union officials see a calculated strategy at work here: Corporations know that such high-profile closings—as well as moves like firing prominent union supporters—frighten workers and make many too scared to vote for or campaign for a union. The Starbucks union says the company has fired more than 100 pro-union baristas, not just to retaliate against them for their union activities, but to chill overall enthusiasm about unionizing. Federal law makes it illegal to fire a worker in retaliation for supporting a union.
These types of heavy-handed, anti-union moves highlight three big problems. First, they create an atmosphere of fear that often prevents something that federal labor laws seek to guarantee—free and fair unionization elections. Far too often, all the closings, firings, and other anti-union moves destroy the “laboratory conditions” that the National Labor Relations Board says are needed to assure workers a “free choice” when voting whether to unionize.
Then there’s a second big problem: Companies like Starbucks often seem happy to take one illegal anti-union action after another—like firing workers for supporting a union—because under federal law, they can’t be fined one cent for doing so, and their executives can’t be punished. (At most, companies can be ordered to pay backpay to workers who were illegally fired for backing a union.) Top corporate officials must tell themselves, When you can’t be fined, why not break the law to stop unionization? The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which President Joe Biden has endorsed, aims to remedy this by creating substantial fines for employers’ labor law violations, but a GOP filibuster has doomed that bill’s chances.
It’s extremely hard for workers or the NLRB to prove that Starbucks or other corporations closed a store to punish or sabotage union efforts—that would constitute unlawful retaliation under the National Labor Relations Act. In such situations, companies invariably insist that they closed a store because it was losing money or had safety problems, not because it was a hot spot for unionization. CEOs never trumpet to the world that they shut an operation to suppress organizing efforts, although one would have to be naïve to believe that management closed these facilities without calculating how it might undermine unionization.
A third and underappreciated problem is that even when the NLRB seeks to crack down on illegal, anti-union moves, the understaffed board often can’t keep up. Without a funding increase for the past nine years, the labor board has cut its field staff by nearly 40 percent since 2014, and as a result it has strained to muster the resources to investigate Starbucks’ many firings of pro-union baristas. Starbucks insists that it fired those workers for legitimate reasons like violating company rules, but the labor board asserts that anti-union animus illegally motivated some of those firings. The most recent study on the subject, done in 2007 and updated in 2009, found that nearly 1 in 5 rank-and-file workers who lead organizing drives get fired, a move that often terrifies workers and drains all momentum from unionization campaigns.
Thus far the NLRB has filed 35 complaints against Starbucks, alleging hundreds of labor law violations, including illegal firings and store closings. With Starbucks firing more pro-union baristas week after week, the NLRB seems to be playing Whac-A-Mole, never quite able to keep up with all of Starbucks’ union-busting moves.
Last October, Starbucks closed two stores in Buffalo—one temporarily—after baristas in those stores were among the very first in the nation to petition for a union vote. More recently, Starbucks announced 16 store closings, purportedly for “safety reasons,” but the union says at least 11 of the recently closed stores have unionized, which has convinced many workers that this was yet another ploy to frighten them from unionizing—and from even complaining about safety issues. Starbucks had an excellent mentor on such policies: Walmart permanently closed the very first Walmart store to unionize in North America, in Jonquière, Québec, after the retailer and union deadlocked in contract talks and Walmart suddenly said the store’s financial situation was precarious.
Beyond closures and firings, Starbucks has come up with other potent strategies to frighten workers about unionization. In May, CEO Howard Schultz threatened to give raises and improved benefits to Starbucks’ nonunion workers, but withhold them from workers at its unionized stores. In response, NLRB has accused Starbucks of illegally discriminating against workers at its 200-plus unionized stores. Starbucks argues that it would violate federal law to impose those raises and benefits on its unionized workers without first bargaining with them, but the NLRB emphatically disagrees, seeing a clever, animus-filled, union-busting stratagem at work.
In September, Starbucks—defying the NLRB’s assertion that it was acting illegally—doubled down and again awarded new benefits to its nonunion workers, but not its unionized ones. Now, with Starbucks’ unionized workers not receiving these raises and benefits, many baristas have come to fear not only that unionizing will leave them behind in their compensation, but that Starbucks’ tactics mean the company will never seriously negotiate with them at the bargaining table. Many baristas say that Starbucks seems determined to drag its feet for years before ever agreeing to a first contract, delaying workers’ ability to get the benefits they were seeking through unionization, and thereby souring many of its employees’ views of the union.
Starbucks, Amazon, and other companies have used many other tactics to strike fear into the hearts of workers. Some companies severely reduce workers’ weekly hours, and with it their weekly pay, after they petition for a union election, both to get pro-union workers to quit and to show that bad things can happen if you seek to unionize. During the recent union drive at Amazon’s warehouse south of Albany, workers said the company told them they could lose benefits if they unionized. Then there’s management’s frequent spying on union supporters, making many workers too terrified to even discuss unionization. After workers at Amazon’s Albany-area warehouse voted 406 to 206 two weeks ago against joining the Amazon Labor Union, that union’s president, Chris Smalls, said, “The voting process wasn’t free or fair. It was a sham election where workers were subjected to intimidation and retaliation on a daily basis.” The Amazon Labor Union has filed 27 unfair labor practice charges against Amazon over its anti-union actions at the Albany-area facility, alleging, among other things, that the company illegally fired several pro-union workers. The NLRB is investigating those allegations; Amazon denies any illegal actions.
At the moment, we are seeing an extraordinary surge of interest in unions among young Americans. Many of the companies facing union drives—Amazon, REI, Chipotle, Apple, Home Depot—have mounted anti-union campaigns, but none have gone nearly as far as Starbucks. With its escalating steps to quash unionization, Starbucks has created an elaborate, union-busting template that other corporations will no doubt follow.
In the initial wave of union elections at Starbucks early this year, there was such vast worker enthusiasm that the union won 90 percent of the first 60 union elections held at shops last winter and spring—an extraordinary success rate. But Starbucks has since ratcheted up its anti-union pressure, and statistics from the union show that its winning percentage declined to 74 percent in July, August, and September. Arguably more important, the flood of baristas petitioning for union elections at their stores has slowed to a trickle, to just 12 petitions in September and eight in August, down from 71 last March. With its elaborate efforts, Starbucks is slowly strangling its baristas’ union drive.
Several of the corporations involved in today’s high-profile unionization battles seem to have borrowed some of Starbucks’ hardball tactics. Last month, Apple withheld some education and health care benefits from workers at the first Apple store to unionize, in Towson, Maryland, even as it extended those benefits to its non-union workers. That news came out just days before workers at Apple’s Oklahoma City store were to vote on unionizing. In September, Trader Joe’s, shortly after learning of the unionization effort at its store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, fired a prominent union supporter there, a move that workers said helped cause the organizing drive there to lose momentum. Last week, that store’s workers voted down a union 94 to 66.
Corporate executives and lobbyists often point out that the percentage of U.S. workers in unions has sunk to 10 percent from a peak of 35 percent in the 1950s, and they say this shows that American workers don’t want unions. They’re wrong. Several studies have found that around half of America’s nonunion workers—around 70 million people—say they would like to join a union if they could. But there’s a major reason they aren’t joining: the sophisticated and often punitive corporate tactics that discourage and frighten workers from unionizing.
If union elections were truly free and fair, without all the corporate interference and intimidation, many more Americans would be joining unions. But a free and fair union election has all too often become a hollow promise.
In recent decades, American workers have been badly squeezed by several troubling trends: Income inequality has grown ever wider, workers’ share of GDP has fallen, and wages for the average worker have stagnated (except recently amid a very low unemployment rate). Arguably the best way to reverse these disturbing trends would be to make it easier for workers to unionize—and to make it harder for Starbucks and other corporations to suppress American workers’ ability to organize.