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A judge ruled Starbucks violated labor law. But organizing Kansas City workers remains ‘tall order’

Large sign of the Starbucks mermaid sits in front of a single-story building with "Starbucks" sign attached the roof. Cars are parked in front of it and a customer is walking out of the building.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Traffic and customers flow in and out of the Starbucks located at 41st Street and Main on Tuesday morning.

A decision from the National Labor Relations Board found Starbucks violated labor law hundreds of times. While workers in Kansas City wait on decisions for unfair labor practice charges of their own, they say more direct action is needed.

An administrative judge in New York ruled last week that Starbucks violated federal labor law in response to a union campaign in the Buffalo area. The more than 200-page ruling ordered the company to reinstate unlawfully fired workers, pay them back pay and damages, and reopen a location it closed while union support was growing.

The judge also ordered Howard Schultz, the chief executive officer of Starbucks, to read or be present for a reading of a 14-page notice describing the company’s violations and promising to refrain from committing labor law violations in the future.

Casey Moore, who does communications for Workers’ United, which represents Starbucks employees, called the ruling historic.

“This ruling was just basically detailing the egregious nature of Starbucks' union-busting campaign,” Moore says. “I don't even think we hoped that it would be this great of a ruling. So the excitement, the hope, the joy of Starbucks workers across the country is really amazing – people are feeling really, really good about it.”

A video of the reading, as well as a physical copy of the notice, will be distributed to every Starbucks location in the U.S., including Kansas City locations that have been unionizing since last year.

But the ruling won’t have an immediate effect. A spokesperson for Starbucks says the company plans to challenge the ruling.

“We believe the remedies ordered in the decision issued are inappropriate and are pursuing further legal review of the matter through an appeal to the NLRB Board in Washington, D.C,” the spokesperson says.

In addition to the NLRB decision, Starbucks is the subject of a Senate investigation. This week the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee will hold a vote on whether to issue a subpoena for Schultz to testify about Starbucks’ compliance or lack thereof with federal labor law.

Matthew Pezold is a labor and workforce development specialist at the University of Missouri Extension in Kansas City. He says the national actions could be a boost for unionizing workers.

“If you're going to take the vantage point of the worker, particularly the Starbucks workers, it certainly would be perceived as a step in the right direction,” Pezold says. “An initial acknowledgment that their rights to organize in the workplace have been violated. So that should give them some encouragement.”

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will make it easier for workers to exercise those rights. Pezold says it all depends on if Starbucks is successful in challenging the ruling.

“It's a positive development for the workers themselves – and it could very well reinvigorate them – but I would say it's still a large challenge for them to organize when an employer is actively resistant to that outcome,” he says.

Seven people stand in front of Starbucks holding cardboard protest signs. In the center, one sign reads "Starbucks only became unsafe when we started a union."
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Plaza Starbucks workers protested the sudden closure of their cafe in August. Josh Crowell believes the only way to progress the union further is through more direct action.

Workers are hopeful about recent developments but want more to change

Cali Freeman has worked at Starbucks at various locations for five years. Before she was transferred to her current location at 41st and Main in Midtown, she worked at the Country Club Plaza cafe.

The company shut down that cafe in August of 2022, claiming it did so because of safety concerns. But workers allege it was an attempt to stop the unionization of the store.

Freeman says the closing of her old location left her disillusioned with the company.

“I saw how quickly that all got ripped away just because we were trying to negotiate and actually live up to what it means to be a partner in a company, not necessarily an employee,” Freeman says. “It's kind of heartbreaking. Everything I thought that was working about this company for me, and all the support that they had given me, is temporary or circumstantial. So that was an eye-opener.”

Workers at the 41st and Main location narrowly won the vote to unionize in June of last year. After multiple objections to the election from Starbucks, the NLRB certified the vote. But in February Starbucks petitioned for it to be overturned.

Since the vote, Freeman says many partners, as Starbucks calls them, have stopped working at the cafe. She believes that Starbucks posting the notice of workers’ rights would help revive the union at her store.

“Since there is such a high turnaround at the store there are so many inconsistencies and a lot of frustrated partners,” Freeman says. “I think that having those rights posted up somewhere definitely helps everybody that's frustrated and confused.”

Pezold says seeing the rights could inspire workers to take further action.

“If you're a worker and you're seeing these rights being posted – if they do in fact record this acknowledgment as is being required – that could send a signal to those workers who are concerned about losing their jobs or about repercussions that they might choose to be more assertive or more willing to vote to organize,” Pezold says.

Josh Crowell, a barista at the 41st and Main location, believes the NLRB decision will only make a permanent change if paired with direct action and concrete demands.

“If you aren’t going to be moving more aggressively into organizing, getting everybody on the same page to be moving in a direction of action, and starting to continue to escalate pressure in order to get Starbucks to the table to bargain a strong first contract, it’s not going to have nearly as much of a massive impact,” Crowell says.

Crowell believes that the NLRB decision and the Senate committee hearings won’t prevent Starbucks from attempting to stop stores from unionizing. While the recent decision determined that Starbucks broke labor laws hundreds of times, Crowell says workers still fear for their jobs.

Pezold says that fear, coupled with the high turnover of workers being either fired or quitting, makes it harder to unionize the company.

“Part of the challenge for the workers is essentially having to try to organize at every location as opposed to the whole company in and of itself,” Pezold says. “That's a tall order to organize thousands of locations. It gives the employer multiple opportunities to either slow down the process of trying to negotiate or to potentially frustrate that process by waiting for pro-union workers to leave or take other places of employment – or potentially even fire them.”

Workers United currently has more than 20 open cases against Starbucks filed with the NLRB on behalf of Kansas City area employees, alleging nearly 50 unfair labor practice charges. Crowell says the union shouldn’t wait on the results of those cases to move forward with organizing. He says the fate of the movement doesn’t rest on legal or government agencies but on the workers.

“We can't look to any of these external forces,” Crowell says. “At the end of the day, it comes down to us as workers recognizing our power, fusing that power, and then flexing it to put pressure on the corporation in order for them to concede to our demands.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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