Starbucks calls for halt to mail-in union elections, alleging misconduct

Facing a nationwide organizing drive, Starbucks accused National Labor Relations Board officials of “tipping the scales” in favor of the union and called for all mail-in elections for its stores to be suspended for investigation.

In a letter Monday to the chairman and general counsel of the labor council, the Seattle-based coffeehouse chain claimed council officials unfairly influenced the outcome of a union election in Overland Park, Kansas, more early this year. Starbucks says officials helped workers submit their votes in person at a board office, even though the election was to be done exclusively by mail.

Starbucks also accused board officials of a “lack of neutrality” as they pursue unfair labor practice charges against the company. Regional labor board offices have filed 19 complaints against Starbucks involving dozens of cases where union supporters say the company has targeted or retaliated against them for trying to organize, including to Overland Park.

The NLRB is an independent federal agency that oversees most private sector union elections and arbitrates disputes between employers, unions and workers.

“Starbucks has accused board officials of ‘lack of neutrality’ as they pursue unfair labor practice charges against the company.”

Kayla Blado, spokeswoman for the board, said in an email Monday that the agency has “well-established processes” for parties to challenge how elections are handled. The letter Starbucks sent on Monday was not part of this formal process, as it was not an attachment to a specific case.

“Regional staff – and ultimately the Board – will carefully and objectively consider any challenges raised through these established channels, which include opportunities to request an expedited review,” Blado said.

A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday for board officials to hear Starbucks’ objections to Overland Park’s election. However, Starbucks asked that the hearing be adjourned “until there has been a thorough investigation” and that the results be made public.

Starbucks United Workersthe campaign, which has unionized more than 200 stores since December, called the company’s allegations and demands ‘absurd’, saying it’s now”in vogue for the losers of certain elections nationwide to attempt to reverse the elections by any means they deem necessary.

“Starbucks is simultaneously claiming to stand up for voter protection and then calling for all elections to be suspended nationwide,” said Michelle Eisen, a union leader and barista in Buffalo, New York. “This is hypocrisy at its best.”

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is seen in an undated photo. Regional offices of the National Labor Relations Board filed 19 complaints against the company alleging it broke the law against union organizing efforts.

Leigh Vogel via Getty Images

The April election results in Overland Park are still not final. An initial tally showed workers voted 6-1 in favor of unionizing, but there were seven contested ballots that could change the outcome. The board sets aside disputed unopened ballots and then must determine the eligibility of workers who cast them (for example, managers cannot vote in union elections).

In the version of events described in the Starbucks letter, several Overland Park employees apparently did not receive their mail-in ballots due to confusion from council officials. The company says the union’s attorney reported the missing ballots to a board official, who then arranged for the workers to vote in person at a board office.

The company said it was unaware of these accommodations and accused the board of “collaborating” with the union to “increase the number of pro-union votes”.

“Starbucks simultaneously claims to be advocating for voter protection, then calls for all elections to be suspended nationwide. This is hypocrisy at its best.

– Starbucks barista and union leader Michelle Eisen

A Starbucks store in Buffalo was the first to unionize late last year. In a matter of months, the Workers United union has managed to win 221 in-store elections, all but 11 of which have been certified official by the labor board, according to data provided Friday by the NLRB. Forty-six stores voted against unionizing, giving the union an 81% victory rate. The union says election data shows “workers spoke loud and clear”.

The union accused Starbucks of breaking the law throughout the campaign by closing stores, firing pro-union workers and promising benefits to workers who choose not to unionize. Starbucks says none of these actions were retaliatory, but the labor board’s general counsel found merit in many of the union’s allegations and filed complaints based on them. The charges are still pending.

In its letter to the board on Monday, Starbucks asked that officials make it clear to the public that there have been no formal findings of legal violations yet.

“All existing cases of unfair labor practice do not concern allegations“, wrote the company.


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