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Sunday 4 February 2024

As coffee shops become union battlegrounds, owners hit back

·10 min read 

The owner of a small coffee chain in Pittsburgh called employees to a mandatory meeting on Jan. 10. It was supposed to be a gathering on team-building, designed in part to improve the performance of the chain’s four stores. Before the sessions began, however, employees stood in front of owner Sukanta Nag and asked him to recognize the union that they had agreed to form.

The following day, Nag closed all locations of Adda Coffee & Tea House. The abrupt closure sent more than 30 workers to the unemployment line, leaving them without a paycheck, without severance and without access to personal belongings trapped inside the shops, including notebooks, cameras and dozens of plants. Several workers said Nag changed the locks on the day he announced the closings.

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Nag didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, but in other stories and social media, the owner blamed the closure on a business that had been operating at a loss since its debut in 2016. He told the Pittsburgh City Paper that he decided to close the chain in December but wanted to make one last push at financial stability with the Jan. 10 meetings. “Despite everyone’s best efforts, our monetary reserves are depleted and we need to close our doors,” read a statement on Adda’s Instagram page, dated Jan. 11.

The workers didn’t buy the owner’s reasoning. Why, they wondered, had Nag hired a chief operating officer for the chain at a sizable salary? Why was he looking to hire a second general manager? Why was he even holding team-building meetings on the day before closure?

“For it to all of a sudden accumulate to an instant closure, mere hours after the employees announced their intent to unionize, is just such uncanny timing. So I think he’s using this to capitalize on getting out of a crappy situation,” said Chloe Troutman, former lead barista at the Adda shop in the North Side area of Pittsburgh.

In the last few years, coffee shops have been a breeding ground for organizing, as hundreds of workers in the Bay Area, Brooklyn and many locales in between have fought for their right to unionize. Yet once baristas, bakers and other staffers sign union cards at coffee shops, they often find that the path to an actual union vote or to a contract with their employer can be loaded with land mines.

When confronted with baristas looking to organize, many companies, large and small, follow a well-worn playbook developed by law firms that specialize in union busting, said Rebecca Kolins Givan, associate professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University. The playbook is so well-known, Givan said, workers and labor unions have created bingo cards to check off every time a company adopts one of the standard practices or speaks one of the usual lines.

The tensions between Starbucks and its unionized stores is the most prominent example. According to the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency has certified unions at 375 Starbucks locations across 41 states and the District of Columbia. (Ten other stores have union elections ordered or already underway.) About 9,000 out of more than 235,000 Starbucks employees across the United States- or “partners,” as the chain calls its workers - are members of unions, said Kayla Blado, press secretary for NLRB.

None of those workers have successfully negotiated a contract with the corporate giant even though the chain’s first union shop was certified in Buffalo more than two years ago, said Tori Tambellini, a staff organizer for Starbucks Workers United, which operates with the support of Workers United.

“The company has been stalling by any means they possibly can,” Tambellini told The Washington Post. “The company has not done any meaningful bargaining with us in the U.S.”

The NLRB has docketed 725 open or settled unfair-labor-practice charges against Starbucks, Siren Retail (which oversees the chain’s roasters and Starbucks Reserve stores) and Littler Mendelson, a “union avoidance” law firm that is working with Starbucks on its legal cases, Blado said. The charges cover cases in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

After investigating the charges, NLRB regional offices have issued 127 complaints that cover more than 400 unfair labor practice allegations against Starbucks and Siren Retail, said Blado. Among the complaints: that Starbucks has failed or refused to bargain with 259 certified unions across 36 states and D.C. In December, the Seattle regional office alleged Starbucks closed 23 stores to suppress union organizing, charges that the company says “lack merit.” A hearing is scheduled for August.

The federal agency and federal judges have issued 50 decisions, ordering “make-whole” remedies for unfair labor practices found at Starbucks stores, Blado said. The decisions include orders to reinstate 46 fired Starbucks workers, though some of those decisions have not yet been enforced, the spokeswoman said. Tambellini, the Starbucks union organizer and a shift supervisor at a downtown Pittsburgh shop, was one of those reinstated employees.

Starbucks has appealed decisions, but so far none have been overturned in the litigation process, Blado said, though several remain pending.

Andrew Trull, spokesman for Starbucks, noted in an email that many of the complaints before the NLRB and appeals courts “occurred early in the union’s organizing campaign, prior to implementation of a dedicated labor relations team and investments in more bespoke management training.”

Trull also underscored the findings of an independent report commissioned by Starbucks. Released publicly in December, the report “found no evidence of an ‘anti-union playbook’ or instructions or training about how to violate U.S. laws or suggesting surreptitious means of interfering with employees’ freedom to choose unionization or not.” The report was authored by Thomas M. Mackall, a labor attorney with extensive experience representing employers in various capacities, whether at Sodexo or with the governing body of the International Labor Organization.

The report suggests Starbucks was not prepared at first - with the proper management protocols in place - to handle the wildfire-like spread of organizing efforts at stores.

“All indications are that Workers United had prepared thoroughly for its organizing efforts, had careful top-down leadership, and was effective at leveraging Starbucks’ early missteps to frame a ‘Starbucks is anti-union’ narrative and engaging multiple stakeholders to drive publicity and pressure," the report noted.

Starbucks has made progress since those days, Trull noted, with strategic investments in management training and on-the-ground support. In December, the chain also sent a letter to Lynne Fox, international president of Workers United, hoping to hit the reset button on its relationship with the union. Written by Sara Kelly, executive vice president and chief partner officer, the letter asks that each party refrain from “abusive language” while looking to set bargaining sessions, free of video or audio recording, with the goal of ratifying all contracts in 2024.

The letter was sent more than a year after Howard Schultz, former chief executive of Starbucks, said he would never embrace the chain’s union. It also came just weeks after Starbucks and the union sued each other in federal courts.

Despite the difficulties union baristas have faced with Starbucks, their efforts have inspired a new generation of workers. “I think a lot of baristas look at Starbucks and they think, ‘If Starbucks did it, we can do it too,’” said Tambellini, the union organizer. “I also think that it’s had a lot of an impact on younger people. ... It’s making unions kind of cool and trendy again.”

The organizing at Starbucks is even inspiring employees outside coffee circles, said Diana Hussein, spokeswoman for Unite Here, a union devoted to the massive labor force that drives the hospitality industry. Hospitality workers are approaching Unite Here about forming unions “because they’re seeing that it’s possible through coffee shop workers,” she said. Hussein estimates her union represents about 3,000 baristas at airports around the nation, including Starbucks workers who are employed not by the coffee chain but by HMSHost, a company that provides food service to almost 80 airports in North America.

The conditions at every union coffee shop are different, and so are the workers’ demands. Many want better wages. Some in high-crime areas want better safety protocols or a bathroom reserved just for staff. Some want to make sure tips are distributed fairly, or want the owner to install an electronic system that actually takes tips. But one concern cuts across many shops: Workers want a consistent schedule so they can earn benefits (Starbucks workers must average 20 hours a week to get them) and a steady paycheck that allows them to budget.

At the Adda shops in Pittsburgh, scheduling became a major issue, said Chris Gratsch, former lead barista at the Shadyside location. A general manager, he said, would set schedules, but Nag, the owner, “would make revisions based on who he liked or who he found to be charming or personable.”

Nag did not respond to requests for comment.

The Adda staff never had the chance to make specific demands before the owner pulled the plug on the business. Their plight highlights the risks workers can face when organizing at coffee shops, where, experts say, owners will often stall or drag out negotiations long enough that hourly baristas and other employees just give up and seek another job. But owners may take more dramatic steps, too, such as firing organizing workers or closing shops. Proprietors in Detroit and Brunswick, Maine, also closed their coffee shops as workers started organizing.

It can be hard to prove a coffee shop closure is directly related to union organizing, said Givan, the associate professor at Rutgers. Owners can suggest that “the closure was for any number of other reasons, and they are likely to avoid any kind of repercussions,” she added.

That’s because when an employer violates U.S. labor laws, there are no actual penalties, Givan said. The NLRB can order a company to reopen closed stores or reinstate fired employees (and reimburse them for lost wages), but the agency can’t levy any fines that might discourage an employer’s behavior in the future, Givan said. The NLRB confirmed this information.

“Many employers think it’s worth it to go ahead and violate the law because the fines are basically nonexistent,” Givan said.

When an entire business shuts down, workers have few options for relief, said Wendell Young, president of UFCW, Local 1776, which represents the now-former employees at Adda. But both sides have been in negotiations since the closure of Adda’s stores, Young said. Nag, chief information and technology officer for OneTen, an organization that advances the career of Black workers without four-year college degrees, has tentatively agreed to severance for all employees. There will be a base severance, with extra money for employees based on their length of service, Young said.

“This is a big deal,” Young said about the tentative settlement, which he called a rare win for workers following a business closure. “I think this really raises the bar.”

Even though they lost their jobs and their attempt to form a union, the former Adda workers say they wouldn’t have done anything different. “This is not a cautionary tale to not organize,” Gratsch said. “This is more of a reason that people should.”

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