ARLINGTON, Va. ― Sam Dukore had some unfortunate news for the regulars at his Starbucks store in Arlington, Virginia, on Wednesday. The company’s union-busting had prompted workers to go on strike and shut down the store for the day, Dukore told them.
“Sorry, Curtis!” he shouted to a customer headed for the locked doors.
The cafe in Arlington’s Court House neighborhood was one of more than 100 Starbucks stores around the country where workers took part in a one-day work stoppage, according to the baristas’ union, Workers United. The union said workers were striking due to alleged unfair labor practices committed by the company.
Enough workers took part in the Court House walkout that the store apparently couldn’t function for the day. A sign on the door said it was temporarily closed and urged customers to download the app to find open locations. Workers picketed outside throughout the morning, passing out flyers on the dispute and accusing Starbucks of breaking labor law.
“We’ve definitely seen it ourselves firsthand here. We don’t want to just take it,” said Dukore. “I love food service. I want to be in this industry. But I’m not going to allow myself to be stepped on.”
The stores affected by the strikes make up a small share of Starbucks’ 9,000 corporate-owned U.S. locations. A Starbucks spokesperson said the company was able to keep most of the picketed stores open with regular staff and baristas pulled in from other cafes. The company accused the union of orchestrating a publicity stunt.
“Rather than publicizing rallies and protests, we encourage Workers United to live up to their obligations by responding to our proposed sessions and meeting us in-person to move the good faith bargaining process forward,” the company said in a statement.
The strikes come at a pivotal time for the company and the union campaign, which has organized nearly 300 stores since late 2021. The company’s famous co-founder Howard Schultz just stepped down as interim chief executive this week, replaced by Laxman Narasimhan, the former CEO of Reckitt, which owns Lysol and Durex.
Schultz played a central role in combating the union effort, making open appeals to workers not to bargain collectively. Officials at the National Labor Relations Board have implicated him in several complaints in which they accuse Starbucks of breaking the law by making promises and threats to discourage unionization.
Schultz is scheduled to go before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions next week to field questions from lawmakers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), on the raft of allegations against Starbucks. Sanders had threatened Schultz with a subpoena before reaching an agreement with Starbucks for the outgoing CEO to testify.
“The strikes come at a pivotal time for the company and the union campaign.”
Starbucks is also scheduled to have its annual shareholder meeting on Thursday. The union has encouraged investors to support the idea of an independent review of the Seattle-based company’s record on workers rights. A pair of proxy advisory firms have urged shareholders to back the review, according to Reuters.
Workers United said Wednesday’s protests served as a “welcome” to the new CEO and an invitation for the company “to stop its unprecedented campaign of union busting.”
Starbucks has denied threatening workers or breaking the law during the campaign. But there are now roughly 80 complaints against the company being litigated, and the labor board’s administrative law judges have started issuing official decisions on the cases.
One judge recently wrote in a decision that Starbucks had committed “egregious and widespread misconduct” in Western New York, where the union effort began, including illegally monitoring and firing union supporters. The judge ordered the company to reinstate seven workers who lost their jobs. The company has appealed the decision to the full labor board in Washington for review.
Dukore, a shift supervisor who has worked for Starbucks for 11 years, said workers at his store had experienced increased scrutiny from management since they moved to unionize last year, including reprimands for attendance and dress code issues that weren’t enforced as much before. In several Starbucks cases, the labor board’s general counsel has accused the company of selectively wielding policies against union sympathizers.
“They started coming down on dress code in ways they had not previously. They started coming down on time and attendance,” said Dukore, a 37-year-old father. “People coming in three minutes, five minutes late because of traffic or whatever, that has suddenly become a problem. They try and wear you down to the point where you just want to quit.”
Dukore’s co-worker Jayde Coler, 33, said she had received several lectures about the dress code at the union store, something she hadn’t experienced at a nearby nonunion store she had worked at previously.
“Almost everyone in our store, if not everyone, is on a final written warning for various things that were either not enforced in the past or enforced lightly,” Coler said.
None of Starbucks’ U.S. corporate-owned stores had union representation until the Workers United campaign began a year and a half ago. The union is now trying to negotiate contracts at the more than 280 stores that have voted in favor of union representation.
Securing a first contract can be a notoriously difficult process, sometimes taking years. Each Starbucks store will technically be subject to its own agreement, rather than one national contract, adding to the challenge of negotiations. The labor board’s general counsel recently accused Starbucks of refusing to negotiate with workers at more than 20 stores.
René Klerian, a worker at the Court House store who was protesting on Wednesday, said lawmakers’ pressuring of Schultz to appear before the Senate was a “step in the right direction.” He planned to watch the testimony next Wednesday.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
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