Starbucks Union Leaders Were Illegally Fired, Labor Board Rules

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Starbucks broke the law by firing two union leaders, making illegal threats and surveilling baristas who agitated for better working conditions in Philadelphia, the National Labor Relations Board ruled Monday.

The three-member panel’s decision affirms a judge’s findings in 2021 that the coffee chain violated employees’ rights repeatedly in late 2019 and early 2020, when baristas were pushing the company to guarantee predictable work schedules and address discrimination based on race and LGBTQ status. The board has ordered Starbucks to offer reinstatement and back pay to the two fired workers, Tristan Bussiere and Echo Nowakowska.

Starbucks has denied that it retaliates against workers for trying to organize their stores, but in this case “the judge found nearly every violation alleged to have been committed” by the company, the board noted. Starbucks challenged “almost all of the judge’s findings” unsuccessfully.

“We disagree with the decision and are considering all options to obtain a full legal review of the matter,” a Starbucks spokesperson said in a statement.

Philadelphia Baristas United, the organizing effort in that city, preceded a larger Starbucks union campaign that began in 2021 and has led to hundreds of stores around the country forming unions. But the findings in the Philadelphia case track with the many allegations made by workers in the nationwide organizing push — namely, that Starbucks has closely monitored union leaders and targeted them for retribution.

“I wanted to share that we’re keeping an even closer eye on [the Philadelphia store].”

– A Starbucks manager in an email

When Bussiere and Nowakowska began talking with a union organizer in 2018, their manager alerted a regional director and a human resources official, who then interviewed workers at their store. Human resources took the concern all the way to an executive vice president at the company.

After workers at the store submitted a petition related to discrimination, health, safety and other issues, Starbucks’ media relations department began monitoring their activity on Instagram, tracking who liked, shared or commented on their posts, according to filings.

One manager sent a concerned email marked “urgent and confidential,” noting that baristas were asking questions about sick leave and scheduling. “It feels like the energy in the store is ramping up again with partners looking to add ‘demands’ to their work environment without wanting to have real conversations about them,” the manager wrote, using the chain’s terminology for its employees.

Starbucks workers and union supporters at a rally in New York City in October. The National Labor Relations Board ruled Monday that the company illegally retaliated against baristas in Philadelphia.

Michael M. Santiago via Getty Images

“I wanted to share that we’re keeping an even closer eye on” the store, a human resources manager wrote to a superior. He said the company should move “with urgency” but be “tactical” about it.

Managers eventually reduced Nowakowska’s hours by as much as 40% and then fired her. They also issued a written warning against Bussiere and later fired him as well.

The company claimed the firings were legitimate and due to performance issues, but both the judge and the labor board found that the workers’ organizing efforts were a “motivating factor” in the company’s actions, making them illegal. They also rejected Starbucks’ argument that the workers should not be reinstated because they had violated both company policy and Pennsylvania state law by recording conversations with their manager.

The coast-to-coast Starbucks organizing campaign, which is spearheaded by the union Workers United, has led to hundreds of similar accusations of illegal union busting at the company.

The NLRB’s general counsel, who functions as a prosecutor for labor law, has found merit in many of those allegations, issuing more than 75 complaints against Starbucks covering 237 unfair labor practice charges around the country, a board spokesperson said Monday. Judges have issued decisions in just seven of those cases so far. As the Philadelphia ruling demonstrates, it often takes years for a case to make its way through the labor board with appeals.

The Starbucks workers who have unionized at nearly 300 stores are now in the process of trying to bargain their first contracts with the company, a notoriously difficult and long process. In November, the labor board ruled that Starbucks was not bargaining in good faith with workers who had unionized in the chain’s home city of Seattle.