WILMINGTON — After a months-long battle, area employees of a national coffee franchise have become the first in the region to join Starbucks Workers United.
The Middle Sound Loop Starbucks, located at 7201 Market St., was approved by the National Labor Relations Board in a 16-10 vote Tuesday. It’s only the second unionized store in North Carolina; Starbucks United Boone formed in Blowing Rock in April.
“Months of feeling taken advantage of on the floor or fearing retaliation day in and day out has finally paid off,” Chloe Baker, a leader from the Wilmington store’s organizing committee, said in a press release. “We are now able to be validated as a unionized store and we can finally begin to see a partnership being crafted with this company.”
In May, Wilmington workers made the move to petition NLRB — founded in 1935 to protect employees’ rights — to form a union. Organizers told PCD it hoped to receive better management accountability, seniority pay, consistent scheduling, adequate staffing, health and safety protocols, and cost-of-living wage increases.
Middle Sound Loop employees sent a letter to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz alerting the company of its intent to unite. The letter expressed displeasure with low compensation, product shortages, understaffing, fear of losing benefits, and unjustified management discipline, all adding to poor working conditions.
“There has been increased stress on sales, drive-thru times and pumping out as many drinks as possible, leaving baristas and shift supervisors exhausted and burnt out by the end of their shifts,” the letter explained.
“We want you to see why unionizing is important to us, as well as why it is necessary for us to continue loving our jobs,” it added.
Schultz started his tenure in the early ‘80s and has spoken out against unions throughout his leadership at the Seattle-founded company. A spokesperson for the Starbucks Corporation told Port City Daily two months ago: “We’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed.”
In the last year, 223 unionized stores have won elections across 33 states within the Starbucks Workers United Movement. Over 320 petitions have been filed to date among the company’s 15,000 stores nationwide.
Starbucks Corporation sent a letter to NLRB on Aug. 15, requesting the suspension of mail-in ballots for union elections nationwide, due to “misconduct” during a Kansas City election for the Overland Park store. It said the board failed neutrality in the election process.
Specifically, it cited NLRB employees coordinating with union organizers to allow “secret” in-person voting when mail-in ballots were agreed upon by both Starbucks and the labor board. Thus “disenfranchising” others who weren’t allowed to cast votes in person.
The letter also lobbed accusations of vote counts being revealed in real time to union agents to influence other employees who have yet to vote to cast ballots in favor of the union. It also claimed mishandling of ballots, sending duplicate and triplicate copies and board members attempting to cover up the actions.
Corroborating the wrongdoings was a “career NLRB professional,” according to the letter, signed by Starbucks Corporation counsel Kimberly Doud and Zabrina Jenkins, acting executive vice president. It said the whistleblower had “memorialized in numerous documents, including emails between Board officials and Union representatives,” collusion.
The company alleged the same conduct was enacted in other region’s elections, therefore skewing results. In order to safeguard the integrity of the voting process, Starbucks requested all future elections be conducted in person. According to multiple reports, NLRB doesn’t comment on open cases but is investigating claims; it has not ceased the mail-in process.
Ballots were sent to eligible Wilmington baristas on July 11, including full-time and regular part-time hourly workers and shift supervisors employed by Starbucks Corporation during the payroll period ending June 26, 2022.
The Wilmington Notice of Election (scroll down to read in full) stated employees that worked on average four or more hours a week “during the 13 weeks immediately preceding the eligibility date for the election” would have ballots counted as well.
The NLRB assessed ineligible voters included “store managers, office clerical employees, professional employees, guards, and supervisors.”
It allowed assistant store managers to have a voice in the process. Yet, the notice made it clear these ballots “will be challenged,” as assistant managers’ eligibility has yet to be “resolved,” so it’s unclear they will be part of Wilmington’s “bargaining unit.”
Eligible Wilmington employee ballots were required to be received in a Winston-Salem subregional office by 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 22 and were counted in a video conference call on the 23.
A press release from Starbucks Workers United noted the Wilmington win comes on the heels of “Starbucks’ blatant union-busting across the country.”
On Tuesday, a Country Club Plaza store in Kansas City, Missouri, announced its closure, which Starbucks Workers United blamed on the threat of employees banding together. The coffee corporation has disavowed the claims, according to CNBC, and pointed to safety and security concerns as its reasoning to shutter.
As well, the coffee giant has come under fire for terminating employees that threaten to unionize. NLRB has hundreds of unfair labor practice cases open against Starbucks and has represented employees most recently in Arizona and Memphis.
An Arizona judge ruled in the coffee company’s favor earlier in the summer, saying one employee it fired would have been let go regardless of unionizing due to poor employee practices, including rampant tardiness.
Last week, a Tennessee judge ordered seven workers from a Memphis store be added back to the payroll. Starbucks claimed they were fired earlier in the year for violating safety policies, but District Judge Sheryl Lipman ruled NLRB provided enough evidence to prove it was anti-union related.
CEO Shultz divulged in May, during a Starbucks quarterly earnings conference call, the company plans to invest $1 billion in employee and store improvements. As of Aug. 1, it upped starting pay to $15 per hour and plans to add debit and credit card tipping, among other benefits, such as faster sick-time accrual and profit-sharing initiatives.
Schultz said the changes would not be applicable to union stores. He noted it’s required by law to go through a collective bargaining process regarding compensation with certified unions.
Starbucks Workers United sent a letter to the corporation in mid-July agreeing to waive any objections for the company to provide the same increased pay or added benefits as it would to non-union workers. The organization has accused Starbucks of withholding the opportunities as retaliation and has filed another unfair labor practice claim with NLRB.
“We all deserve more than what we are getting, more importantly the seat at the table that our labor built,” Haya Odeh, a leader from the Wilmington store’s organizing committee, said in a release.
A right-to-work state, North Carolina limits power on labor unions. It bans collective bargaining in the public sector, as government workers have to lobby legislators rather than negotiating a union contract. Private sector employees in unions can choose whether to pay dues, but law prevents it from being mandatory. Even workers who choose not to pay remain protected by the certified union’s bargaining agreement, according to NLRB.
The Wilmington store will be certified by next week, according to a representative of Starbucks Workers United, which will then open the door for discussions to begin.
“Workers will form a bargaining committee and sit down at the negotiating table with Starbucks,” the spokesperson confirmed. “Starbucks is of course delaying bargaining and hoping to draw the process out for as long as possible. They don’t have any incentive to bargain with us as, they’re actively trying to destroy us across the country.”
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