Buffalo Starbucks workers’ allegations against the company, and how the NLRB might handle them
Angel Krempa, a shift supervisor at the Starbucks on Transit Road in Depew, has worn a nose ring and a suicide prevention pin ever since she joined the company two years ago.
Since her store filed to hold a union vote in September, she said Starbucks management has told her to take them off or be fired. She also said she hasn’t been allowed to supervise a shift in nearly two months.
“It really hurts because I got this job and I earned my job and I earned everything that I have and I worked very hard,” she said. “And they're pulling that all away all because I want to do is speak for accountability within the company.”
Krempa and other workers’ allegations against Starbucks are detailed in 21 Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges filed over the last week. The allegations, currently being reviewed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), include surveillance and intimidation, closing stores, hiring new workers to dilute union elections, and even firing union leaders.
Starbucks Workers United, the Buffalo-area workers leading the unionization effort that has now spread across the country, is seeking a special remedy under the National Labor Relations Act in which a U.S. District Court judge would block Starbucks from any more alleged anti-union behavior.
The remedy is not used all that often but has recently been given special priority by the Biden administration’s NLRB.
“We're asking the NLRB to put a stop to the entire anti-union campaign,” said an attorney with Starbucks Workers United, Ian Hayes. “It's been that destructive, and it's that egregious of a violation of the law.”
What workers are alleging
In September, Starbucks Workers United tweeted out a photo of Starbucks President for North America Rossann Williams sweeping the floor at an Orchard Park store.
Workers say Williams, who reports directly to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, has been a constant presence in Buffalo-area stores.
“Why on earth would you ask one of the top executives to clean a bathroom? I think they have other things that they should be focusing on,” said James Skretta, a barista at the Sheridan Drive and Bailey Avenue store in Amherst. “So it's clear what Rossann was in our store trying to do.”
Altogether, workers say more than 100 out-of-state company officials have visited Buffalo since the unionization campaign began last summer, including former CEO Howard Schultz, who spoke to workers at a company event in November.
In the ULP charges filed with the NLRB, workers alleged that high-ranking Starbucks officials making such “unprecedented and repeated” visits to Buffalo-area stores was an act of “surveillance” and meant to intimidate workers.
“Between August and today, there was not a conversation that I had with a coworker in my store where I was more than 10 feet away from a manager,” said William Westlake, a barista at the Camp Road store in Hamburg, which voted against unionizing in December.
Other ULP charges deal with the temporary closing of some Buffalo-area stores. Starbucks Workers United alleges Starbucks temporarily closed at least 11 stores in the Buffalo-area since the unionization effort.
That includes the Walden Avenue and Anderson Anderson store in Cheektowaga, whose workers were transferred to other stores while it became a training-only facility for several months last fall.
“They specifically sent a lot of folks from my store to the Genesee Street and the Camp Road stores to basically send the message of, ‘We were trying to unionize and look what they did to our store,’” said Colin Cochran, a barista at the Walden-Anderson store.
And for new employees trained at the Walden-Anderson store, the training had less to do with making drinks and more to do with why unions aren’t necessary, said one of the employees trained there, RJ Rebmann.
They said it was almost two months between the time they were hired and when they poured their first cup of coffee.
“I was just attending these anti-union listening sessions,” Rebmann said, “and it seemed very much to me that they were trying to indoctrinate me and other new hires into this kind of climate of distrust toward the partners that wanted to unionize, and spread this kind of scary narrative.”
This alleged hiring of new employees to dilute the pro-union vote has disrupted scheduling and given Starbucks an excuse to terminate pro-union employees, workers alleged.
A reduction in workers’ hours in recent months forced some of them to get second jobs. Recently, Starbucks has begun telling workers they have to increase their hours or be fired.
That’s what happened to Elmwood Avenue store barista Cassie Fleischer, a member of the bargaining committee whose firing last month has been widely publicized.
“We're filing these charges to get justice for Cassie and all of our co-workers who've been put in this untenable position of having their hours reduced,” said one of Leischer’s coworkers, Jaz Brisack, “and then not being able to live on them so they have to get another job, and then suddenly they're told that they don't meet the needs of the business.”
A Starbucks spokesperson, Reggie Borges, called any allegations of Unfair Labor Practices at the company “categorically false.”
How the NLRB might handle it
The NLRB received over 15,000 Unfair Labor Practice charges last year. More than half were withdrawn or dismissed, while about a third resulted in settlements, in which the employer or union agreed to stop the unfair practice.
“As you can tell, that's a pretty ineffective remedy,” said Cathy Creighton, director of Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School’s Buffalo Co-Lab and a former NLRB attorney.
What’s different about the Starbucks workers’ case, Creighton said, is that they’re seeking a 10(j) injunction, named after the same section in the National Labor Relations Act. It entails the NLRB asking a U.S. District Court judge to issue an injunction against an employer or union to stop the alleged unfair labor practices while the NLRB investigates.
“The workers are saying that the actions of Starbucks are so egregious that this should not go through the normal processes of the National Labor Relations Board, but should go directly to federal court to have a federal district court judge decide in a very quick manner whether Starbucks violated the law or not,” Creighton said.
The NLRB general counsel must get authorization from the NLRB itself before seeking an injunction in court, and doesn’t seek these injunctions very often. It did so just fewer than 60 times during the first three years of the Trump administration.
But there may be some good news for Starbucks workers. The Biden administration’s NLRB general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, just last month launched an initiative to more quickly seek injunctions on behalf of workers facing threats over their unionization efforts. Abruzzo’s memo instructs regional NLRB offices to quickly investigate allegations and promptly submit those cases for consideration of injunctive relief.
“Her attitude is much more worker-friendly and she is looking for ways to help workers who are organizing,” Creighton said, “because the law statute says that it's federal policy that workers should be able to form a union if they want.”
Hayes, the attorney for Starbucks Workers United, said they hope the NLRB will act on the 21 ULP charges “soon,” adding there’s only so much Starbucks can “say to try to excuse itself.”
“This has been an extraordinarily vicious anti-union campaign, and it calls for extraordinary remedies in order to make up for that, or try to make up for that,” he said. “We can't get into a time machine and go back six months and get the company to not do everything it just did. However, there are some measures under the law that we're going to ask the NLRB to take to try to make up for it.”