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Baristas of the World Unite: Starbucks Workers in Buffalo Lead Unionization Effort

September 9, 2021 | by B. Kevin Burke Jr.
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Buffalo, New York finds itself the epicenter of a controversial drive by Starbucks workers to unionize. For years, workers at the corporate coffee behemoth have complained about labor practices related to staffing, sick leave, and a general lack of support from management.

Recently, a group of workers calling itself Starbucks Workers United announced their intent to hold elections on the issue of union representation. If successful, these workers would likely join the national union, Workers United, a move that would upend Starbucks’ current labor model.
 
While Starbucks’ human resources and legal experts dispatch to Buffalo to engage in what the company is calling a “listening tour,” the time is ripe to remind business owners of some “do’s” and “don’t” when it comes to unionization efforts.
 
Be proactive. It is unlawful to prevent workers from attempting to form a union, but companies and management can mitigate this risk by building good employee relationships into their corporate goals. Foster a culture of transparency. Listen to employee concerns about sick time, paid time off, staffing, and other day-to-day issues impacting workers. Respond to employee questions openly, not defensively. Periodically audit your workers regarding potential issues related to management.

Provide accurate information. If management learns of an attempt to unionize, it is lawful to express the preference that a union is not formed. But in doing so, be clear that workers have a right to join a union and will not be punished for doing so. Speak accurately about the good parts of your business. Highlight the benefits and perks that your company already offers its workers. If your company offers favorable wages and perks as compared to similarly situated unionized workers in the area or industry, point that out.

Do not retaliate. Do not terminate a worker for participating in union activities. Avoid conveying a sense of betrayal. Do not hint or suggest that anyone’s job may be lost as result of unionization. Do not ask who is in favor of unionizing.

Do not make quid pro quo promises. Do not bargain for wage increases or additional holidays in exchange for voting against a union.
 
It is important to speak with competent legal counsel skilled in the area of labor negotiations in the event any business believes its workers will attempt to unionize. Each case turns on its own facts, and we regularly work with new clients who are facing this challenge. In the meantime, businesses would do well to review information readily available through the National Labor Relations Board.

B. Kevin Burke Jr. is an attorney with Gross Shuman, P.C. He focuses his practice on the litigation of contract disputes, labor and employment issues, intellectual property protection, and trade secret cases. He can be reached at 716.854.4300 ext. 292 or kburke@gross-shuman.com.