Will Westlake, a Starbucks barista in Hamburg, New York, whose store recently filed for a union election, was told by a manager he could attend an earlier mandatory anti-union meeting on 8 November because he was scheduled to work early the next day.

The meeting was in a nearby hotel and when Westlake arrived he found out he was the only worker in attendance, with six members of Starbucks management. The meeting lasted for about one hour.

“That was basically how my last anti-union meeting was, totally separated from the rest of my co-workers and having to be surrounded,” said Westlake. “They started off by going around and saying that they wanted me to vote no for the union. And then they went back and forth talking about how great all the benefits are at Starbucks and if we vote in a union, we may not have any of those benefits.”

Westlake emphasized the numerous anti-union meetings have been framed as listening sessions, but it’s the workers who have been doing most of the listening: the sessions have largely consisted of management presenting anti-union talking points, with little feedback from workers involved.

Westlake’s experience is just one part of an aggressive anti-union campaign run by the giant coffee chain as six Starbucks stores in the Buffalo, New York, area have filed for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board in recent weeks. If successful, the stores would be the first Starbucks corporate locations to unionize in the US.

Workers have reported numerous captive audience meetings, one-on-one meetings, store shutdowns, closures, remodelings, and text messages – a mode of contact that was previously used only for emergencies. Dozens of corporate executives have flooded stores with the intent to deter workers from voting to unionize, workers say.

“The company has sent more managers here to Buffalo than workers voting in the first three elections. There’s no way it can be viewed as anything other than an attempt to spy on partners and intimidate them,” said Brian Murray, a Starbucks barista in Lancaster, New York.

Murray added: “Every day we’re forced to deal with new managers we’ve never met and it’s draining to have to go through constant anti-union meetings, text messages and managers trying to pry into our lives. It shouldn’t be acceptable for them to treat anyone like this, especially during the lead-up to an election that should be free and fair.”

The former Starbucks CEO and billionaire Howard Schultz visited Buffalo to present a case against unionizing to workers on 6 November and incited criticism for making an analogy to the Holocaust in discussing the company’s mission.

Starbucks Workers United filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB on 4 November over Starbucks’ conduct during the union campaign, which included Starbucks shutting down two stores that are holding union elections and transferring workers to disrupt the voting units.

Starbucks characterized the closures as coincidental.

“As soon as the baristas publicly announced they wanted to have a union, corporate executives swarmed into the stores to try to stop them with threats, promises, store closings and overwhelming pressure,” said Richard Bensinger, an organizer with Starbucks Workers United.

He said all 21 employees at the Starbucks store in Cheektowaga, New York, had signed the union election petition, but the company then expanded the voting list to 46 workers.

At another store, Bensinger said, 80% of workers signed union authorization cards, and Starbucks shut down that store as well. The company transferred workers to other stores and turned the location into a training center.

According to a December 2019 report conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, US employers are charged with violating labor law in 41.5% of all union elections and spend nearly $340m annually on union avoidance consultants, tactics that labor leaders and many elected officials are hoping to rein in with the Pro Act in Congress.

“It’s been really stressful, especially when there are times when they come in a group of four or five of them to talk to every single person on the floor. It’s 10am, peak coffee time, and we’re trying to keep up business while they’re trying to do one-on-one meetings with people to gauge what’s going on with them, and that’s been frustrating,” said Angel Krempa, a shift supervisor at the Starbucks location in Depew, New York, just outside Buffalo. Krempa’s is of three stores that filed for a union election with the NLRB this month, joining three other nearby stores that have begun their mail-in ballot elections.

Krempa said that since the union organizing drive went public, Starbucks has sent dozens of corporate executives to the Buffalo area, including two support managers to her store, which had operated without an assistant manager.

As corporate executives have shown up at stores as a part of the anti-union campaign, her store manager, along with several others in the area, have resigned. She noted that shortly after her store filed for their union election, on 9 November, Starbucks announced the store would be remodeled, the third time in the past eight months.

The corporate presence, Krempa argued, has worsened working conditions, as workers feel constantly under surveillance, and it has consistently disrupted regular job duties, while problems such as short staffing, lack of proper training and safety measures remain unresolved.

“It’s really just a spying technique, and it’s made most of our baristas really uncomfortable, because it feels like instead of a helping hand, it’s more of an eye in the sky right in front of you, and they’re waiting for you to mess something up,” added Krempa. “We’re here to just bring back the accountability that Starbucks says they’re trying to give to us and make sure that Starbucks is the good company that they say they are, and this is how we feel we can make sure that happens. Starbucks needs to allow partners to continue to fight for themselves and the company because that’s all we’re trying to do.”

Starbucks deferred comment to a letter by the Starbucks executive vice-president – North America, Rossann Williams, who noted operational changes in the Buffalo area were a response to operational gaps.

“We care deeply about our partners here in Buffalo, as we do in every market across the country, and we want to preserve our partner to partner relationship,” wrote Williams. “While it is certainly our partners’ right to make their own decision – and one we fully respect – I do hope our partners will give us a chance as they make the best decision for themselves, their families and their fellow partners.”

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