Labor board complaint against Starbucks alleges San Antonio worker illegally fired, other violations
This spring, Starbucks workers at the store off of East Quincy and McCullough were involved in an effort to unionize as part of a growing national movement to organize unions in Starbucks stores.
On May 21, Atticus Drummond, one of the store’s lead organizers, was fired in a move that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) now alleges was unlawful. The board issued a new complaint against Starbucks on Oct. 5 that encompasses a range of alleged federal labor law violations around Texas.
The complaint was filed by Region 16 of the NLRB, which oversees most of Texas. The complaint was comprised of alleged labor violations by Starbucks in stores in San Antonio, Dallas and Austin, and it was one of dozens of complaints made against the coffee giant in the past year and a half.
The board’s complaint alleged Starbucks threatened employees that they would lose benefits and the ability to transfer to other stores if they unionized; attempted to engage in surveillance of union activities and led employees to believe their union activities were being surveilled; and solicited employees to surveil their coworkers’ union activities and report to management.
Drummond said after their store’s union effort went public, managers began strict enforcement of certain policies, and singled out pro-union workers.
“Starbucks is cracking down on policy that wasn’t previously enforced to basically just nitpick and weed out the union organizers — the leaders,” he said.
Drummond said they were fired for alleged time theft because they clocked in using a process Drummond said had previously been standard for workers at their store and others.
“You’re in the parking lot. You’re there for work. You can write down that time as the time you got in,” Drummond said. “That’s what’s been said at my store and other stores — they’ve said similar things — but they didn’t crack down on it until they found out we were union leaders.”
Drummond also said managers began strictly enforcing policies about casual, non-aggressive cursing between employees that had not been previously enforced.
A Starbucks spokesperson responded to the NLRB complaint:
“We respect the right of all partners to make their decisions regarding union issues, whether they favor or oppose representation, and in all union dealings, including collective bargaining, we will always engage honestly and in good faith,” the statement said.
In a June interview between Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin, Sorkin asked Schultz if he thought the company could embrace the union as part of its effort to reinvent the role of the company.
Schultz’s response: “No.”
Starbucks union workers seized on the chief executive’s comment to argue that the company would not bargain in good faith with the unions. A Starbucks spokesperson at the time said Schultz was simply stating he had a different view than the unions.
CJ Craig, one of the union organizers at the San Antonio Starbucks store that was the first to unionize in the city, off of Loop 410 and Vance Jackson, said he was glad the NLRB was finally acting on some of the charges made by workers at stores in Texas.
“It’s about time!” he said. “Myself and my fellow organizers are relieved to see steps are finally being taken to hold Starbucks accountable and achieve justice for the organizers this company has adversely affected.”
Craig said his and other union stores had been kept from receiving new benefits, one of the pieces of the NLRB’s complaint.
“My store has not received any of the new benefits that were announced or have been announced since May 3rd,” Craig said. “They’re even telling us that they’re not going to give us the credit card tipping option on our credit card readers.”
Craig also said a raise was delayed.
“They delayed giving us a raise that was rolled out in August by a month,” Craig said. “They gave it to non-union stores at the top of the month, and they made us wait till the end of the month.”
According to information on Starbucks’ website about the unionization process, the company cannot make changes to wages or benefits in unionizing stores by law.
“When union organizing occurs in a store, it is unlawful for Starbucks (or any employer) to respond by promising or making new improvements in wages and benefits or by making wages and benefits worse in that store,” according to the statement.
For stores that are already unionized, the statement said it is unlawful for Starbucks to change wages and benefits without going through the collective bargaining process.
Craig said Starbucks’ actions on wages and benefits amounted to a coordinated attack on the unions, rather than an attempt to follow labor law.
“The pressure has been mostly around these benefits, which I would argue are a very blatant bribe to keep workers from wanting to organize and also to punish workers who have organized,” he said.
Starbucks has been found in violation of labor law multiple times. In June, an NLRB administrative law judge found that Starbucks had illegally retaliated against two of its workers in Philadelphia, and it ordered the company to offer reinstatement. In August, the NLRB won an injunction that required Starbucks to rehire seven unlawfully fired workers in Tennessee.
Starbucks sent out letters to 234 unionized stores around the country in late September to begin collective bargaining on a store-by-store basis. Workers at unionized Starbucks stores around the country have blamed Starbucks for stalling the negotiations process, and they have called for Starbucks to negotiate with a national bargaining team instead.
Starbucks Workers United, a collective of unionized Starbucks stores that are represented by the Service Employees International Union, announced a set of non-economic proposals at the end of September. The proposals included policies to outline job descriptions, a formal process for disciplinary action and implementing disaster emergency pay among other proposals.
The complaint filed in Texas also alleged Starbucks interrogated employees about their union sentiments; told employees not to engage in union activities; threatened employees with unspecified punishments if they wore union shirts; told employees they were prohibited from wearing union attire, while permitting employees to wear attire with other insignia; interfered with, restrained and coerced employees in the exercise of their labor rights; and unlawfully fired an employee for engaging in union activities.
Craig said workers at his store had also filed charges with the NLRB for alleged labor violations, though those weren’t included in the most recent complaint.
A hearing on the complaint will be held in January. Drummond says they hope one of the outcomes will be reinstatement and back pay. They said they were unemployed for a month before finding a job that limits them to living check-to-check.
“You know, it was kind of shocking being just wrongfully fired out of nowhere,” Drummond said. “I’ve just been trying to survive.”
The Starbucks union victories in Texas were part of a wave of union victories at Starbucks stores across the country, which began at the store in Buffalo, New York, in December 2021. The wave still continues today; there are currently 11 unionized Starbucks stores in Texas and 247 in the country, with almost a hundred more that have filed to unionze, according to More Perfect Union.
Craig said his coworkers felt like their union drive was about more than their store.
“As we saw the movement continuing to grow, we as a store and as workers, we knew that what was happening was something bigger than us as individuals and bigger than us as a store,” he said.
Speaking about the customers that come through his store, Craig said it’s been a near-universally positive response to the union drive.
“Almost all of our customers are aware that our store is a union shop,” Craig said. “I have yet to speak with anybody who is not supportive of us. Our regulars, especially, have expressed unending support.”
Craig said several members of city council had reached out to him and his coworkers following the union vote, including District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo.
“Members of city council reached out to us almost immediately to express their support and how excited they were that the movement was coming to Texas, and not just Texas, but San Antonio specifically,” Craig said.
In a statement responding to the NLRB complaint, Castillo said workers should be able to organize without risk of reprisal.
“All workers deserve the opportunity to engage in union activity free from interference, coercion, and retaliation from management,” Castillo said in her statement. “I am hopeful that the NLRB will take appropriate measures that make it clear to Starbucks management that interference in protected union activity will not be tolerated.”
Castillo also said workers like Drummond should be commended for their efforts, not disciplined, and she encouraged people to support them.
“As we await the results of this ruling, people can support Atticus by donating to their gofundme here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/get-atticus-reinstated,” she added.
Workers at Starbucks stores around the country have participated in more than 55 strikes over alleged violations of labor law by the company. Craig said that if members of his union felt it was necessary, his store would be no different.
“There are many reasons that stores have gone on strike, many reasons that stores can go on strike, and striking is never off the table,” Craig said. “We are the ones who make the company its money. And if we need to remind our management of that, then we will.”
According to Drummond, one outcome of their firing was that other workers at their store were afraid to continue organizing.
“After I was fired, everyone associated with me, everyone that they were pretty positive were pro-union, they started being singled out and written up for a lot of the same previously unenforced policies,” Drummond said. “It’s kind of basically almost been put on a pause, I would say, because everyone’s scared of being fired.”
They said they hope after the hearing in January, their store will be able to keep moving toward unionizing.
“It’s not because people are upset with Starbucks, it’s just because we deserve better,” Drummond said of the union effort. “It’s for the wellbeing of all the employees. It’s because we want to be an actual partner.”