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Starbucks management is escalating anti-union actions in San Antonio, workers say

Workers on strike outside of a Starbucks store downtown. Strikers hold up signs with slogans like "Bargain don't bully" and "Respect unions now!" They stand under and in front of a tent with a big sign on the side that says "Starbucks Corporate: Stop Unfair Labor Practices! Respect our union."
Josh Peck
Workers on strike in December in front of the East Houston and St. Mary's Starbucks store.

Workers at six Starbucks stores in the San Antonio area have unionized in the past 18 months. Now, workers at three of those stores say management has unlawfully tightened discipline, added new policies without bargaining, and escalated retaliatory action against workers — including calling the cops on workers out of dress code.

Dominique Renteria works at the Starbucks on East Houston Street and North Saint Mary’s Street, and is an active member of the union there. They were scheduled to start work at the downtown store at 6 a.m. on January 19, but when they woke up to get ready for the shift, they knew there would be trouble.

“I woke up to the other partner Juan saying they were told to clock out because their hat was out of dress code, so immediately I had to just be on the defensive and kind of like, prepare,” Renteria said.

Renteria said they decided to wear a shirt with the name of a local artist, which they had worn before without issue. But when they got to the store, their manager prevented them from clocking in for the same reason. Renteria and their coworker stood their ground, waiting in the lobby of the store after arguing with their manager, who said she was going to “follow the disruptive policy” because they were refusing to leave.

Renteria said at the time that they didn’t realize what their manager meant by “disruptive policy.”

A black short-sleeve shirt with the name "Delenda" on the front in a white, sharp font.
Dominique Renteria
The shirt, which Dominique Renteria had worn before, that she was wearing when her manager prevented her from clocking in on January 19.

It meant calling SAPD.

Renteria said when the officers arrived, they didn’t understand why they’d been called to settle a work dispute, but asked Renteria and their coworker to leave the premises and sort it out with their manager later. They ultimately left.

The next time Renteria clocked in, they were in compliance with the dress code policy.

“I was really scared about losing my job, so I didn’t exactly want to keep pushing them and pushing them,” Renteria said. “It definitely left me scared, genuinely. I mean, what they wanted to happen kind of worked.”

Seiya Wayment, the lead organizer at Renteria’s store, said they had also been disciplined for similar dress code violations.

Mark Gaston Pearce was the former National Labor Relations Board chair under President Barack Obama and is a current visiting professor and executive director of Georgetown Law School’s Workers Rights Institute. He said calling the cops on workers for violating dress code was part and parcel of Starbucks’ anti-union efforts.

“What Starbucks management is doing is engaging in — what it sounds like — a wholesale repudiation of any kind of labor law adherence,” Pearce said.

He added that workers' violation of the dress code was irrelevant — what matters is why it’s being enforced now.

“How is it that you’re enforcing the policy now just because these employees have unionized?” he asked. “So the timing and the basis for this policy enforcement becomes extremely suspect, and therefore would be inclined to be unlawful.”

A Starbucks spokesperson denied that dress code policies are being enforced more strictly and said workers may wear union attire. The spokesperson did confirm that the store manager called the police after two workers’ “continued refusal … to adhere to store manager directives to exit.”

But Tyler Keeling, a union worker at a Starbucks store in Southern California, said dress code is tightening there too.

A group of Starbucks workers and supporters picketing in front of the Saint Mary's and East Houston Street Starbucks. Picketers are holding signs that say "full staffing now!"
Josh Peck
Texas Public Radio
Workers and supporters picketing the St. Mary's and East Houston St. Starbucks for Red Cup Rebellion in November.

“The company has escalated, enforcing rules that previously weren’t enforced, and it is an unfair labor practice,” Keeling said.

Quinn Craig, who works at the unionized Starbucks at Loop 410 and Vance Jackson Road, said management there instituted a new productivity tracking system over the union’s objections.

“Now it will take longer to go through this long list of tasks that we have to complete,” Craig said. “And they have a paper trail where they can keep track of who did what so that if something isn’t done to their standards, then they can go and coach that person.”

Craig said “coaching” can quickly turn into discipline, which is another reason the company needs to bargain — but management is refusing.

A Starbucks spokesperson said no new productivity tracking method was instituted and that existing productivity metrics are not used “as the basis for corrective action.”

At Parker Davis’ store on Wurzbach and Blanco, management was trying to rearrange the back-of-house in such a way that he and his coworkers said it represented a change in working conditions. Management there refused to bargain too.

“If we’re changing where a bunch of things are located … and we’re scrambling in the back trying to figure out where it is, well now we can’t make that drink, times are going to start rising in the drive thru, and that’s going to see a measurable impact in our sales,” Davis said.

If that happens, he added, hours and staffing could be affected, which is why the union has a right to bargain over it.

Pearce said while management has a lot of flexibility in changing a store’s layout for efficiency purposes, if the result substantially affects unionized employees, there could be an argument to make that it should be bargained over. When it comes to a new productivity tracking system, he said workers must assert their rights to bargain over changes of that nature, and an employer’s refusal to do so would likely constitute an unfair labor practice.

Signs posted around a table the strikers are using with various labor slogans.
Josh Peck
Texas Public Radio
Signs posted on a table striking workers and supporters are using outside of the East Houston and St. Mary's store.

Wayment said they felt it was clear why Starbucks is turning to such tactics.

“I think it’s more important for them to be intimidating partners because that has an immediate effect and the court system takes months,” Wayment said.

A Starbucks spokesperson denied that the company was intimidating workers and said it supports employees’ rights.

“Our decisions are grounded in established policies and are in alignment with labor and employment laws—including the National Labor Relations Act,” the statement said.

San Antonio workers aren’t alone in their accusations against the company. A San Antonio Starbucks store was accused of unlawfully surveilling employees, threatening the loss of benefits, and firing a union leader by Region 16 of the NLRB in October.

In the face of what workers say is an unrelenting attack on their rights and a NLRB relief process that can take months or longer, Renteria said they’re lucky to be able to count on their fellow workers.

“It really makes me feel pretty squashed,” Renteria said. “I’m really grateful for the organizers because they were ready to support me in whatever I needed.”

It may be months before the NLRB makes any ruling on the San Antonio incidents.

The National Labor Relations Board’s 77 complaints against Starbucks consist of 236 charges of labor law violations across the country for its response since the union effort began.

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