Starbucks hit with lawsuit: Feds charge company with violating workers' rights

Share this Post:
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz — Photo by Ted S. Warren / AP
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz — Photo by Ted S. Warren / AP

There's more bad news for Starbucks. The embattled coffee giant was hit with a major national lawsuit on May 4, with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charging it with "overly broad and discriminatory rules" that systematically violate workers' labor rights.

The NLRB is the federal agency that oversees labor-management relations and enforces the National Labor Relations Act.

According to the NLRB, Starbucks' so-called "Partners Guide" — the company's employee handbook — illegally restricts employees in areas that are none of the company's business.

The NLRB's suit cites no fewer than 19 different sections of the handbook, each of which constitute "interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees in the exercise" of their right to form a union under the National Labor Relations Act.

Most of the rules function as gag orders on organizing workers, the NLRB says. The objections include the following:

  • Starbucks' very specific dress code, which bans workers from wearing any union insignia, either on their shirts or on the pins on their aprons;
  • A ban on video recording, audio recording, and photography that stops workers from documenting their working conditions and advocating for improvements;
  • The company's confidentiality rule, which prevents workers from discussing the conditions of their employment and other issues they face;
  • Its ban on social media and unsanctioned interviews, which prevents workers from speaking out about their working conditions, their experiences on the job, and why they want a union; and
  • Starbucks' harsh corrective action rules, which stop workers from engaging in protected organizing activities that are essential to unionizing.

    The National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935 at the height of the CIO's organizing drive, specifically protects employees' rights to take "concerted action" to defend their rights.

    Starbucks has until May 18 to respond to the lawsuit. A preliminary court hearing date has been set for June 14.

    Photo by Joshua Bessex / AP  

    The lawsuit was filed after Starbucks failed to respond to a proposed settlement over the harassment and firing of union activists in Phoenix, Arizona. Starbucks was also hit with a federal injunction over its illegal firing of the Phoenix workers.

    Workers at the Phoenix location held a union election on May 5, with six people voting for the union and eight against. Eight outstanding ballots have been challenged, however, and they will hold the final decision on unionization.

    The NLRB also charged the company with improperly firing seven pro-union workers in Memphis, while Starbucks Workers United has filed more than 114 unfair labor practice charges over the past few months. Workers at more than 50 stores have voted to unionize, while 248 stores have petitioned for an election.

    Starbucks has ramped up its union-busting efforts over the past month since Howard Schultz, the company's billionaire founder, returned as CEO in early April. According to More Perfect Union website, Schultz has instructed store managers to crack down on workers, whom he has called "adversaries" and "outside forces" in a number of public and private meetings.