A Starbucks store in Richmond, Virginia. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)
The biggest morale boost for Richmond Starbucks barista Tyler Hofmann is when customers make up names like “union solidarity” to identify their orders.
“It gets printed out and [employees] have to call out union stuff in the café,” he said. That opens up an opportunity for discussion about workers’ ongoing grievances against the specialty coffee giant.
Hofmann is working at Starbucks again after having been fired last May in what his union and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) claimed was illegal retaliation for his organizing efforts at the Richmond store. A private settlement was reached between the company and the regional board of the Workers United union, according to the NLRB, and Hofmann was reinstated.
The barista battle for higher wages and better hours has spread since a group of employees in Buffalo, New York voted in December 2021 to become the first unionized Starbucks in the nation. To date, workers in nearly 300 of the more than 9,000 U.S. locations have voted to unionize, but Starbucks has yet to reach a contract agreement with any of those stores.
Five Starbucks locations in the Richmond area were the first in Virginia to vote to unionize in April 2022, becoming local units of Workers United, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. Workers at Starbucks stores in Merrifield and Leesburg quickly followed suit. In November, employees at the Arlington Courthouse Plaza store joined the list.
But unionization efforts, while legal under the National Labor Relations Act, the nation’s signature law guaranteeing the right of workers to organize, have run into challenges in many parts of the country, including Virginia.
The law says that employers may not discharge, lay off or discipline employees or refuse to hire job applicants because they are pro-union.
But at the beginning of March, an NLRB administrative law judge in New York issued a decision finding Starbucks had violated the act hundreds of times in the western part of the state through “egregious and widespread misconduct demonstrating a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights.” His decision requires Starbucks to bargain with the union, reinstate unlawfully fired workers, reopen an unlawfully closed facility, reimburse workers for consequential harm they suffered as a result of Starbucks’ unlawful conduct and post a notice, on all forms of social media, with an explanation of workers’ rights, according to the NLRB Office of Public Affairs.
In Virginia, there are now more than a dozen active cases concerning the company. Some cases include charges that Starbucks has retaliated against and fired workers for engaging in union activities and has conducted coercive actions such as surveillance. The Virginia cases also allege the company has refused to bargain with workers and bargained in bad faith.
Andrew W. Trull, Starbucks senior manager of corporate communications, said in an email that of the charges filed by Workers United for stores in Virginia, “the NLRB has only filed a complaint in one case, at this time. Moreover, nine of the open cases originate from a single store in Leesburg, Virginia — of which, one has been withdrawn by Workers United (making for a total of 15 active charges in Virginia).”
The NLRB has not made a final decision resolving the merits of any of these cases addressing union-related issues involving Workers United, Trull said. “We believe the allegations made by Workers United and the NLRB in these matters are meritless and that actions taken in our Virginia stores were lawful and in alignment with long-established partner policies — not in retaliation for any partners’ participation in, or support of, concerted union activities.”
On Starbucks’ Founders Day — a March 22 event created to honor CEO Howard Schultz — employees from about 100 stores, including one in Richmond and one in Arlington, walked out in protest.
The following day, Starbucks shareholders approved a proposal for the board of directors to conduct a third-party assessment of how the company is treating its workers. The company said it already has undertaken its own “human rights assessment.”
Later, before a U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing, Schultz testified that the company has not broken labor laws and is willing to bargain with unionized workers.
But Rebecca Hess, an organizer for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Joint Board of Workers United, said Starbucks has committed multiple unfair practices in Virginia.
“There’s been multiple firings for union activity. They’ve violated [employees’] rights when they’ve refused to provide credit card tipping” in stores with union representation, she said. “There is disparate treatment. Store managers are telling our partners, ‘I would love to promote you or give you more hours,’” she continued, but then saying they cannot because the employees are union supporters.
Hofmann, an organizer who has worked at Starbucks for four years, said a number of other workers who say they were fired over their union activities are still waiting for their hearings.
The firings “are always for something different. I was terminated for ‘not living up to the Starbucks mission and values,’” he said.
An in-person bargaining session between the company and workers at a unionized Chesterfield store has been scheduled for April 17, but Hofmann complained about the length of time it has taken to get to that step.
“We’ve been waiting for a year for bargaining,” he said.
Hess also criticized the company for its slowness to engage in bargaining.
Bargaining for initial contracts is a notoriously slow process in the United States. According to a Bloomberg Law labor report, it takes an average of 465 days for a company to negotiate a first contract with a union.
Starbucks has said that at some stores employees have rejected in-person bargaining sessions and are insisting on negotiations that could include online sessions.
“Starbucks believes in-person negotiations would best facilitate the give and take of negotiations,” the company said in a statement.
Workers continue to push for unionization, Hess said, because they believe “Starbucks is going in the wrong direction.”
“They want Starbucks to listen to them,” she said. “Stores are understaffed everywhere. They want a living wage. They are okay with regular rates, but when you are cut down to nine hours a week, how do you live on that? They are starving people out by not giving them adequate hours and not adequately staffing.”
Inadequate staffing, she continued, has led to other problems, including numerous customer complaints.
“We don’t expect them to give away the farm, but why not be the union coffee company? At one time, Starbucks did treat the partners right. They forget what made them great,” Hess said.
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