Starbucks on Monday asked the National Labor Relations Board to temporarily suspend all union elections at its U.S. stores, citing allegations from a board employee that regional NLRB officials miscoordinated union organizers.
In a letter to the chairman of the board and other officials, Starbucks said the unnamed career NLRB employee informed the company of the activity, which occurred in the board’s office. of directors of St. Louis in the spring while overseeing a union election at a Starbucks store in Overland. Park, Kansas.
The store is one of 314 US Starbucks stores where workers have called on the NLRB to hold union elections since late last year. More than 220 of these stores voted to unionize. The company opposes the unionization effort.
The Seattle coffee giant alleges that St. Louis labor board officials made special arrangements for pro-union workers to vote in person at its office when they did not receive mail-in ballots, even though Starbucks and the union had agreed that store elections would be handled by mail-in ballot.
In its letter, Starbucks referenced memos sent by the regional office confirming that workers were allowed to come into the office and vote in person after the union informed the regional office that some workers had not receipt of mail-in ballots. The memos, citing “board protocol,” said the workers voted alone in an empty office, according to Starbucks.
“Because observers were not present, no one can be sure who appeared to vote, whether NLRB staff had inappropriate communications with voters, told them how to vote, showed them how to vote, or engages in other undisclosed behavior,” Starbucks wrote in its letter.
Starbucks said regional council officials also leaked confidential information to the union, including workers’ ballots that arrived in the mail to be counted.
Starbucks Workers United, the group that seeks to unionize US Starbucks stores, accused the company of trying to “deflect attention from their unprecedented anti-union campaign, including firing more than 75 union leaders across the country, while simultaneously trying to stop all trade union elections. ”
“Ultimately, this is Starbucks’ latest attempt to manipulate the legal process for its own purposes and prevent workers from exercising their fundamental right to organize,” the group said in a statement. .
A spokesperson for the NLRB said Monday the agency does not comment on open cases.
Publicist Kayla Blado said the NLRB will “carefully and objectively” review any challenges Starbucks raises through “established channels.” Starbucks may also request an expedited review of the case, Blado said.
Workers at the Overland Park store asked the NLRB to hold a vote in February. In April, workers voted 6-1 to unionize, but seven additional ballots were contested by Starbucks or the union.
A hearing on those challenges was scheduled for Tuesday. Starbucks requested that this hearing be postponed, but as of Monday afternoon the board had not postponed it.
Risa L. Lieberwitz, professor of labor law and academic director of Cornell University’s Worker Institute, said Starbucks’ push to delay the hearing was puzzling. Lieberwitz said the hearing was the perfect place for Starbucks to present evidence of the Overland Park election and ask the council to investigate.
“It certainly seems like a tactic to distract from Starbucks’ own conduct and try to put negative connotations or allegations against the board,” Lieberwitz said.
In its letter, Starbucks said the evidence in this case also points to misconduct in other regions. The company wants the NLRB to investigate other Starbucks union elections and release a report of its findings. The company said the board should also put safeguards in place to prevent regional officials from coordinating with one party or another.
Starbucks also asked the NLRB to issue an order requiring all elections to be held in person with observers from both sides.
Starbucks has a long history of opposing unionization, ever since CEO Howard Schultz acquired the company in the late 1980s. The current unionization effort has been riddled with accusations and lawsuits from both sides.
Starbucks Workers United has filed 284 unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB against Starbucks or one of its operators, according to the labor board. Starbucks filed two charges against Workers United.
Earlier this month, the labor board dismissed one of the charges made by Starbucks, saying the company had failed to prove that pro-union workers blocked store entrances or intimidated customers at a spring gathering.
In June, the NLRB asked a federal court in western New York to order Starbucks to stop interfering with organizing efforts at its US stores.
The NLRB’s actions against Starbucks have not always been successful. In June, a federal judge in Phoenix ruled that Starbucks did not have to rehire three workers who claimed the company retaliated against them for organizing a union.
Organizing efforts at Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s and elsewhere are gaining momentum under President Joe Biden, who has sworn to be “the most pro-union president” in American history.
But Bill Gould, a former NLRB chairman who now teaches at Stanford Law School, said NLRB rulings made under Biden weren’t much different from those made under Republican presidents.
“Starbucks doesn’t like the message workers are giving them, pretty evenly, across the country,” Gould said. “So they’re trying to eliminate the messenger.”
Starbucks isn’t the only major company facing a union organizing effort that has attacked the voting process.
Amazon also filed improper conduct charges against the NLRB’s Brooklyn regional office in its bid to reenact a historic victory at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York. Among other allegations, Amazon said the agency tainted the voting process by seeking the reinstatement of an Amazon worker who was fired in the weeks before the March election.
The agency’s attorneys pushed back. A regional director from an NLRB office in Phoenix is expected to render a decision on the matter in the coming weeks.
Associated Press Business writer Haleluya Hadero in New York contributed to this report.