Starbucks workers across New York State are complaining of continued retaliation and coercion by management in an attempt to stop unionization efforts, resulting in lawsuits against the company.
Across the country, Starbucks employees echo those same allegations and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced a lawsuit in June 2022, requesting a nationwide cease and desist order against Starbucks, to stop anti-union efforts by the company. In an email to The Ithacan the NLRB declined to comment on allegations of misconduct within Ithaca Starbucks locations but directed The Ithacan to a list of over 100 active lawsuits within the upstate New York region, 18 of which are in the City of Ithaca.
As previously reported by The Ithacan, in December 2021 a Starbucks in Buffalo became the first store in the country to unionize, causing others to follow suit. The workers in Buffalo created the union “Starbucks Workers United” after they grew tired of what they called “hostile working conditions.”
Dominico Farrell, former shift supervisor at a Starbucks location in Farmingville, New York, said that during his tenure his manager created a hostile work environment. Farrell said he, along with several other coworkers, went to Starbucks’ Human Resources with complaints of sexual harassment and verbal abuse, among other allegations.
“[There were] allegations from people before I even worked there, about just him being either creepy physically, touching people and abusing people verbally,” Farrell said. “So, overall, it just wasn’t a good situation.”
Since winning the union election, employees at the Buffalo store and others have complained the company retaliated against workers, from cutting hours to firing employees and worsening working conditions.
Will Westlake worked at the Buffalo Starbucks location and said he thinks he was fired because of union activity. Prior to being fired, he said employees experienced poor working conditions and hostile management that followed successful unionization.
“There’s a lot of understaffing, a lack of respect, different stores have different issues with their management,” Westlake said. “For [example, in] my store we had a manager that was outwardly homophobic. I know there are issues with stores over hours being cut drastically, it becomes a job that you can’t survive off, over the hours being sliced.”
Donald Beachler, associate professor in the Department of Politics at Ithaca College, said that even if the union were to win the lawsuits against the company, the penalties for violating labor laws are not substantial enough to have a significant impact on Starbucks’ actions.
“Most of the labor laws you [have], when you violate the law, the penalties are small enough that employers are happy to take the risk of the penalty,” Beachler said. “Even [so much] they knowingly violate [the] labor law.”
Westlake said via text that Starbucks has resorted to coercion in its attempt to stop the unionization drive, by threatening to suspend benefits for employees should they unionize, something illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. Some of those benefits included free food for employees during their shifts to more substantial ones like healthcare for transgender employees, as also reported by Business Insider.
“I think that Starbucks’ goal is to make people too scared to make things better, conquer with fear,” Westlake said via text. “The company is ruining its reputation as a force for good with every illegal action it takes and it’s taken more than any company in recent memory — the worst labor-law violator in decades.”
The Starbucks Corporation did not respond to The Ithacan’s multiple requests for comment.
The NLRA, which provides federal protections for unions, was last updated in 1935, despite efforts by democratic lawmakers in congress. Since then, the penalties have remained the same, and dozens of states have passed Right to Work Laws which allow workers to opt-out of workplace unions, something that unions complain weaken collective bargaining agreements. New York does not have the Right to Work Law.
In addition, the high turnover rates of the service industry make service worker unions weaker compared to others, like automotive industry unions. Beachler said Starbucks is likely using this to its advantage, with hopes the movement will “fizzle out,” something Farrell also acknowledged.
“The struggle is we have the union now [and] we just can’t do anything with it, because [Starbucks] is just willing to take X amount of fines until the union eventually doesn’t exist anymore,” Farrell said. “They kind of [are] just putting their head in the sand and ignoring it.”
The Starbucks Corporation closed its Ithaca Collegetown location two months after all three Starbucks locations in the City of Ithaca voted to unionize. According to the Ithaca Voice, in June 2022, the union filed charges with the NLRB against the company claiming coercion and retaliation tactics against employees within Ithaca, which the NLRB found merit in, in November 2022. A finding that resulted in the NLRB seeking an order to have the company reopen the Collegetown location.
The NYS Department of Labor (DOL) said via email that it supports organized labor efforts and advises Starbucks workers to file a complaint to the DOL if they believe there are violations of law, but otherwise declined to comment on the situation.
Beachler said current labor laws are tilted in favor of management and would require substantial changes to better protect workers. For example, companies are allowed to provide employees with informational materials on unions, like posters, and require attendance at informational meetings during union organizing periods, tactics used at Farrell’s location.
Farrell said that upon hearing unionization talks, management worked aggressively to dissuade conversations regarding unionization, from posting “anti-union” flyers to erasing “Unionize Now” whenever it was written on the backroom chalkboard, similar tactics were used at other locations.
“The company puts out a bunch of flyers, saying if you talk about unionization these are the facts you should know about your organization: ‘They’re not there to represent you, they’re not there to be in your best interest, the company is with your best interest at heart,’” Farrell said. “It was like … the second that they heard about it they started it. They got a bunch of propaganda instantly. I was like ‘Bro, that’s how scared they are.’”
Beachler said the odds of the union succeeding in the end are slim.
“[The Union] has an uphill battle ahead, not impossible, but uphill, because you know, for those reasons you know the law,” Beachler said. “If I were betting, it wouldn’t be on the union.”