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Starbucks May Be Hiding the Real Reason Behind Store Closures In New York

The company's execs have descended on Buffalo.

Is trouble brewing at Starbucks? It was reported by Vice this week that the coffee chain temporarily closed two Buffalo, NY stores involved in unionizing efforts. And while the chain claims that the store closures are unrelated to the union drive, some find their timing to be dubious.

According to Starbucks' statement to Vice, the two stores have been closed for remodeling and employee training purposes, a standard procedure for the company. The chain also stated that displaced staff have been provided employment at neighboring stores.

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But Starbucks employees aren't so sure. "The timing of the closures is suspicious," Jaz Brisack, an employee of the store closed for remodeling, told Vice. "We were supposed to get refurbishments earlier this year…[and] as soon as we petitioned for a union election, they said '[the remodel] is definitely happening.' Their goal is to separate us."

To Richard Bensinger, an AFL-CIO veteran involved in the Buffalo union drive, the closures serve one purpose: "It's disruption…" he told Vice in an interview. "No one is against [Starbucks] remodeling their stores. But why now?" Meanwhile, the other closed Starbucks has been converted into an employee training center—a decision made shortly after the store filed for a union election.

The closures come about a month after the regional union drive kicked off, with five Buffalo Starbucks filing for union elections with the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) in September, under the name Starbucks Workers United. If the election is successful, the union would be Starbucks' first. At this time, the petitions are still being processed by the NLRB.

In the weeks since the initial filing, Starbucks has zeroed in on its Buffalo market, not only closing two of the five petitioning stores but flying the company's top brass into Buffalo for "listening sessions" with employees. Regional managers, corporate executives, and even Starbucks' executive vice president for North America, Rossann Williams, have been seen visiting Buffalo locations and speaking to Starbucks workers recently.

The chain denies that the meetings are related to the union drive. However, according to local Starbucks employees interviewed by Buffalo News, Starbucks has used the sessions to reinforce the company's position against unions, as well as to identify anti-union support in the Buffalo market.

Starbucks has also thrown a wrench in Buffalo's union drive by appealing directly to the NLRB, demanding that the union election involve all 20 Buffalo Starbucks (450 employees total). In the meantime, two of the original five Buffalo stores have withdrawn their petitions in an attempt to hasten board decisions for the other three.

Starbucks' Buffalo employees remain hopeful, telling Buffalo News that nearly all of the city's 20 Starbucks stores are actively involved in unionization efforts. As for Starbucks customers: if your local chain suddenly closes, there might be more than remodeling in the works.

We have reached out to Starbucks for comment and will update this article with any responses we get.

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Owen Duff
Owen Duff is a freelance journalist based in Vermont, home of Ben & Jerry’s. Read more about Owen