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AFL-CIO, SEIU, Workers United Slam Starbucks for ‘Bluewashing’ in Bombshell ILO Complaint Accusing Coffee Giant of Exploiting Weaknesses in US Labor Law to Squash Worker Organizing
Thursday, May 11, 2023
Despite company’s claims, ‘anti-union crusade’ runs afoul of UN-backed international labor standards to protect workers
ILO filing comes as Starbucks investors support third-party audit of company’s labor practices, U.S. Congress cracks down on its union-busting
GENEVA — Starbucks has repeatedly defended its unprecedented, unpopular anti-union campaign by claiming it commits to the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) “Core Labor Standards,” including principles of freedom of association. A new blockbuster complaint filed Thursday with the ILO – a United Nations agency whose mandate is to promote decent work for all by setting international labor standards – squashes the coffee giant’s claims as a hypocritical fiction.
Jointly filed by the American Federal of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Workers United (an affiliate of SEIU), the 36-page complaint outlines in great detail how Starbucks is exploiting weaknesses in U.S. labor law in an effort to squash workers’ organizing efforts and deny them a seat at the bargaining table. At the same time, the company is engaging in “bluewashing” in a failed attempt to create a public appearance of social responsibility by association with the United Nations (and its blue flag) without actually engaging in socially responsible conduct.
“This complaint shows clearly that Starbucks does not abide by any kind of internationally recognized labor standards. Starbucks can no longer hide behind the ILO to justify its unpopular – and illegal – anti-union campaign. Starbucks’ bluewashing stops here,” said Mary Kay Henry, international president of SEIU. “The complaint also shows how US labor law fails to protect workers against greedy corporations. It’s time to rewrite the rules to create a new economy where everyone can thrive.”
The complaint highlights the ways in which U.S. law and practice fail to comport with ILO standards and how Starbucks continues to exploit those shortcomings to attack workers’ organizing and bargaining rights.
“U.S labor law and its enforcement steps are woefully inadequate to deal with a big, powerful employer determined to crush union organizing among its employees by interfering with their freedom of association in violation of ILO standards,” the complaint reads. “Starbucks’ anti-union crusade makes it an outlier even among American employers who are well known for their harsh antipathy toward trade unions. U.S. labor law does not provide the [National Labor Relations Board] with the tools needed to halt it.”
The complaint details how since January 2021, workers in more than 280 Starbucks stores have voted in favor of union representation. None have achieved a collective agreement or are even close to achieving it. In the course of the organizing movement, Starbucks has fired nearly 200 union activists and made multiple threats of reprisal against workers if they vote in favor of union representation, according to the complaint.
The unions ask the ILO to convene an on-the-spot “mission,” meeting with Starbucks workers and their union, Starbucks management, U.S. government officials, and other relevant actors to investigate Starbucks’ anti-worker conduct. If the Biden administration invites such a mission, it would be the first time in history that the UN agency would conduct a mission in the United States, and a clear indication that Starbucks’ anti-union conduct falls outside accepted international norms.
“The freedom to stand together with co-workers to have a union on the job is internationally recognized as a fundamental human right,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. “This complaint underscores the vital importance of holding corporations like Starbucks accountable for undercutting the freedom of association and harming workers who are simply organizing for basic fairness and a better life for their families.”
Falsely Claiming the UN Flag
Starbucks has repeatedly invoked international labor standards to defend its interference with workers’ freedom of association. The company has embraced ILO standards in public statements and, most recently, in a statement to Starbucks shareholders opposing a proposal for an independent third-party report on the company’s response to employees’ organizing efforts. In the statement, the company tries to explain away its anti-union campaign by arguing the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association “confirmed that employers’ enjoy” a right to freedom of expression.
“The Committee has not confirmed that employers enjoy an international right to wage vitriolic campaigns of fear and intimidation against workers’ organizing efforts in the name of freedom of expression,” the complaint reads. “Starbucks is clearly trying to wrap itself in the mantle of the ILO and the Committee on Freedom of Association to justify its anti-union campaign conduct.”
The complaint cites three main shortcomings of US labor law that Starbucks is exploiting:
- The National Labor Relations Act violates ILO standards on its face by allowing employers to interfere with workers’ freedom of association, including through tactics like captive-audience meetings.
- Even where key elements of U.S. law align with ILO standards on their face, the absence of effective, timely, and dissuasive remedies available to the National Labor Relations Board violates principles of freedom of association by allowing Starbucks to violate workers’ organizing and bargaining rights with virtual impunity.
- The lack of “effective and expeditious procedures” and “rapid appeal procedures” required by ILO standards allows Starbucks to continue interfering with workers’ freedom of association and to use excessive delays to frustrate organizing and bargaining rights.
“This complaint shows, in stark detail, how Starbucks has taken advantage of those aspects of US labor law that fail to comply with international standards on freedom of association to deny its workers the right to join a union, contrary to the company’s assertions,” said Deborah Greenfield, former ILO deputy director-general for policy. “Until the US amends its laws, the cards are stacked against workers in all sectors of our economy who try to exercise their right to freedom of association, despite the vigorous enforcement efforts of the National Labor Relations Board.”
The complaint highlights stunning examples of failures of US law and case studies of how Starbucks has exploited the loopholes to silence workers. It outlines how Starbucks is systematically contesting election results and appealing administrative law judges’ decisions, thus interfering with workers’ freedom of association. It outlines a reality in which an undeterred Starbucks continues to wage its unprecedented anti-union campaign:
- Workers begin to organize, and Starbucks interferes with workers’ organizing rights.
- Workers and unions seek representation elections and file unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB, but Starbucks’ interference continues apace.
- [NLRB] Regional directors find merit in charges, and Starbucks’ interference continues apace.
- Administrative law judges find Starbucks guilty of unlawful interference, and Starbucks’ interference continues apace.
- Starbucks challenges, appeals, loses appeals, re-appeals, and its interference continues apace.
“If the U.S. labor law system functioned in reasonable compliance with ILO standards, NLRB actions and decisions in early cases would serve to deter future violations,” the complaint reads. “But the opposite has happened here. The NLRB and ALJs, and courts have acted, but Starbucks is unrelenting in its nationwide campaign to destroy workers’ organizing. Instead of slowing and halting its violations, Starbucks is accelerating them.”
“Unscrupulous employers like Starbucks are weaponizing labor laws. Starbucks is appealing and delaying in an attempt to circumvent our US laws and thwart organizing and bargaining rights,” said Lynne Fox, international president of Workers United. “We all know what’s going on here. Starbucks is playing against the clock, and its legal strategy is to delay justice until employees become disillusioned with the process and give up the right to organize and bargain. Starbucks is playing with people’s lives and livelihoods. Starbucks has invoked ILO standards to defend its behavior, and this complaint will bring an end to that.”
Extra Shot of Trouble for Starbucks
Since former Howard Schultz stepped down as Starbucks CEO, the coffee giant has come under pressure to turn the page from Schultz’ union-busting tactics and give workers a true seat at the table rather than the metaphorical empty chair they leave for workers at shareholder meetings.
In April, Starbucks shareholders overwhelmingly voted in favor of a third-party audit of the company’s labor practices, demonstrating a clear desire among investors for the coffee giant to reset its approach to the baristas’ historic union organizing effort. Immediately after the vote, Starbucks partners and community allies turned up the heat on the Starbucks Board of Directors in a series of national actions, demanding they guide the company in a new direction under CEO Laxman Narasimhan and respect the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain for a strong contract without fear of retaliation.
Since December 2021, more than 7,500 Starbucks workers have organized nearly 300 stores, demanding Starbucks respect workers’ fundamental right to organize and bargain a fair contract with their workers.
In this same time period, regional offices of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have issued more than 70 official complaints against Starbucks, prosecuting the company for over 1,300 specific alleged violations of federal labor law, including accusations that former CEO Howard Schultz personally threatened a worker who expressed support for organizing. To date, NLRB Administrative Law Judges have issued nine decisions, eight of which collectively found that the company has committed 130 violations, including illegal monitoring and firing organizers, calling the police on workers, and outright closing a store that recently attempted to organize.
In March, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) heard testimony from baristas Maggie Carter and Jaysin Saxton about the illegal retaliation they faced for organizing with Starbucks Workers United and grilled former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz about his role in leading one of the most vicious union-busting campaigns in U.S. history. Schultz only agreed to testify under threat of subpoena. Ahead of the hearing, U.S. Senator Cory Booker and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) sent a letter to Schultz lambasting the company’s “blatant anti-union behavior” and calling on him to bargain in good faith with his workers.
Phoebe Rogers, phoebe.rogersanna.carron [at] berlinrosen.com (@berlinrosen.com), 914-343-9063
Shannon Garth Rhodes, shannon.garth-rhodes [at] seiu.org (shannon.garth-rhodes [at] seiu.org), 832-545-1851