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Starbucks union fight escalates as company, workers battle over vote

Starbucks workers in Buffalo, N.Y., are slated to vote next month on whether baristas should unionize under Workers United Upstate New York, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. Ballots for the election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board were sent out to workers Wednesday.

Area employees Tuesday said they were filing new petitions with the NLRB to conduct votes at three additional Buffalo stores in addition to the three already set to weigh in on unionization.

Pro-union workers say that support for their group, called Starbucks Workers United, is growing.

“We are incredibly confident,” said Michelle Eisen, a Starbucks employee who works in Buffalo, during an event in front of one of the stores that they are petitioning to unionize. “We’ve only gotten stronger throughout this.”

Meanwhile, the coffee chain tried to stop the vote, which currently affects the three stores, and its executives have spent an increasing amount of time in Buffalo making their case.

In a nearly 60-page petition Monday, Starbucks asked the NLRB for a stay of the mailing of the ballots and for the board’s Washington, D.C., office to review the vote’s structure. Starbucks said an NLRB regional director overseeing the case misjudged last month in allowing only three Starbucks stores to hold individual elections. The company wants a vote to take place across its 20 stores in the Buffalo market.

A Starbucks spokesman said the company believes that all employees have the right to vote at once, instead of dividing up the market into units. He said the vote in individual stores doesn’t reflect how Starbucks workers frequently travel between different cafes.

An NLRB spokeswoman said the board declined to take action on the stay, and the ballots for the three original stores were mailed out Wednesday. The board will consider the petitions for the three additional stores at a later date, she said. It will also still review Starbucks’s request to have the vote take place across all 20 stores.

Starbucks, which owns nearly 9,000 U.S. cafes and licenses 6,500 others, has no unionized stores domestically. An attempt by some New York City Starbucks workers in 2004 to organize failed to translate into a union. Buffalo workers filed petitions to unionize at the end of August, with employees saying they needed better training and resources to do their jobs.

Starbucks has been increasingly focused on the rare unionization drive. The company in meetings and messages to employees has said it can better meet the needs of store employees directly than through an intermediary such as a union. It has pointed to benefits provided to employees that it says are rare among other restaurant chains, including healthcare coverage starting at 20 hours of work a week on average and stock in the company.

The Starbucks fight comes as workers ranging from stagehands to manufacturing-plant employees have become increasingly vocal in the current tight labor market. Unionized workers at Deere Co., Kellogg Co. and Mondelez International Inc. recently have walked off the job over their demands. Companies are taking on higher costs to keep their operations running during the labor battles.

Businesses are increasing pay for workers during the labor shortage to try to increase their ranks, with compensation costs for employees in the leisure and hospitality sector increasing 6.9% in the 12 months ended in September, Labor Department data show. That was the biggest percentage increase of any industry.

Starbucks last month said it was boosting average U.S. employee pay to $17 an hour by the summer of 2022, from roughly $14 an hour currently. That wage increase and two other recent ones constitute overall an additional $1 billion in spending on employees, Starbucks said.

Since Buffalo workers filed union petitions, Starbucks executives have traveled to Buffalo to meet with employees and assess problems, the company has said. In a letter to employees written from Buffalo last month, Rossann Williams, Starbucks’s North America president, asked employees there to vote against the union and wrote that the company was best positioned to improve working conditions.

“Some stores are well supported, but there are serious gaps in too many others,” she wrote.

Starbucks Workers United earlier this month filed a complaint with the NLRB against the company alleging that it was interfering with the union vote. The group alleged that the company had engaged in threats, intimidation and surveillance during the union drive.

The company has denied any claims of interference. A Starbucks spokesman said the company believes that employees across Buffalo deserve the right to a vote and that it is keeping up direct communication with workers there.

Last Saturday, Starbucks invited workers to a city hotel to hear from a guest, with signs advertising that they would be paid for their attendance and receive food and beverages.

Howard Schultz, who built Starbucks from a handful of locations to a global coffee giant, addressed workers in a speech spanning the chain’s founding and its modern-day operations.

“We’re not a perfect company. We’re not perfect people. I’m not a perfect person. Mistakes are made. We learn from them and we try and fix them,” said Mr. Schultz, the chain’s founder and chairman emeritus, according to a transcript of his roughly hourlong address.

As Mr. Schultz concluded, saying that he hoped attendees had learned about the company’s 50-year history of trying to do the right thing, he was interrupted by a pro-union worker asking for Starbucks to ensure a fair labor election. Mr. Schultz wrote to workers later that afternoon that direct discussions with employees remains one of the company’s hallmarks.

Mr. Schultz wrote: “Leaders must learn from what is happening in Buffalo, and I know they are.”

 

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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