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Starbucks Gets a Stern Warning From Senators About These "Illegal Tactics"

The chain's handling of newly formed employee unions is under scrutiny again.

On the surface, Starbucks seems like a great place to work. The chain touts a plethora of benefits offered to its baristas, managers, and other employees, which include stock options, PTO, and, as of late, even student loan assistance.

The past year or so, however, has made it very clear that the Seattle-based company does not support the unionization of its employees. In the latest development, four U.S. senators have issued a stern warning to Starbucks about its recent "illegal union-busting tactics."

In a letter sent to Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz on October 4, Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, and Richard Blumenthal, all Democrats, and Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent, accused the coffee chain of attempting "to intimidate its employees and dissuade them from organizing and joining unions."

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The senators have requested that the company disclose exactly how much money it has been spending on anti-union efforts. This "detailed report of expenditures" should include legal fees (retainers, court-ordered payments), payments made to consultants, and costs related to the production of materials. Sure to cover all their bases, the senators even asked if all anti-union expenditures were claimed as business expenses on the chain's annual taxes.

Additionally, the letter asks "what guidance, written or otherwise" Starbucks management has been provided with on how to handle "workers organizing or joining a union, voting in a representation election, interacting with unionized workers or union representatives, and participating in lawful, union-authorized job actions."

Finally, the letter also asks for a full rundown of all instances over the past year in which "Starbucks introduced new benefits or altered benefits for non-unionized stores, while withholding these benefits simultaneously from unionized employees."

The four senators allege Starbucks has been "weaponizing" benefits in its fight against employee unionization. For example, remember the student loan tools available to Starbucks workers mentioned earlier in this article? Well, those are actually only an option for non-union employees.

For what it's worth, Starbucks says it isn't discriminating against union employees by withholding benefits. The coffee chain argues that under labor law they can't offer unionized workers new benefits without a new, formal union contract.

Addressing Mr. Schultz, the letter reads: "Under your leadership, Starbucks has also weaponized wage increases and new benefits in its anti-union campaign, threatening to withhold them from workers who have voted to unionize, and even those who are organizing and have not yet had a union election—and not hesitating to act on that threat."

Not too long ago there was no such thing as a unionized Starbucks employee. The unionization efforts started last year in Buffalo when a local Starbucks location voted to form the first-ever union in the chain's history.

Since then, the letter alleges that "Starbucks has adopted a range of troubling tactics to persuade, discourage, intimidate, and even retaliate against employees who join, or express intent to form or join, a union."

Citing internal documents, the four senators paint an exceedingly ugly picture, describing "a climate of fear" among Buffalo employees. Workers were warned against talking to the media or posting on social media about unionization, subjected to anti-union text messages, and even received explicit emails stating "we want you to vote no."

The letter also references a Massachusetts Starbucks location that voted to unionize in June 2022. Workers at that store saw most of their hours cut until many no longer qualified for health insurance, and management allegedly instituted a new minimum availability rule without consulting the union. By July, employees were on strike.

The strike ended last month, but not before workers were subjected to "what appears to be a misinformation campaign." Picketing employees were allegedly given fliers that had been made by Starbucks but crafted to appear as though they had been printed by an official government agency.

According to the letter, these flyers were "covered in links to Department of Labor and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) web pages, the fliers contained 'facts' and answers to 'frequently asked questions' about the union drive that were clearly biased and aimed at convincing workers to oppose the union, for their own sake."

Starbucks is also facing heat from Wall Street for its anti-union efforts. Last month the coffee chain received shareholder proposals calling for a labor rights audit. Proponents, including the New York City comptroller on behalf of the New York City Retirement Systems, are calling for an independent investigation into Starbucks employees' freedom of association and collective bargaining rights.

Since that single Buffalo Starbucks location chose to unionize at the end of 2021, employees at about 245 U.S. Starbucks locations have voted to unionize.

Senators Sanders, Warren, Blumenthal, and Markey, meanwhile, have given Starbucks one month to answer their inquiries.

John Anderer
John Anderer is a writer who specializes in science, health, and lifestyle topics. Read more about John