Starbucks Demands Mail-In Union Elections Be Halted, Alleging Misconduct

Facing a nationwide unionization campaign, Starbucks has accused officials at the National Labor Relations Board of “tipping the scales” in the union’s favor, and has asked that all mail-in elections for its stores be put on hold for an investigation.

In a letter to the labor board’s chair and general counsel on Monday, the Seattle-based coffee chain claimed that board officials unfairly swayed the outcome of a union election in Overland Park, Kansas, earlier this year. Starbucks says the officials helped workers submit their votes in person at a board office even though the election was to be done exclusively by mail.

Starbucks also accused board officials of an “absence of neutrality” as they pursued unfair labor practice charges against the company. The labor board’s regional offices have issued 19 complaints against Starbucks involving dozens of instances where union supporters say the company targeted or retaliated against them for trying to organize, including in Overland Park.

The NLRB is an independent federal agency that oversees most private-sector union elections and referees disputes between employers, unions and workers.

“Starbucks accused board officials of an ‘absence of neutrality’ as they pursued unfair labor practice charges against the company.”

Kayla Blado, a spokesperson for the board, said in an email Monday that the agency has “well-established processes” for parties to challenge how elections are handled. The letter Starbucks sent Monday was not part of that formal process, since it was not a filing attached to a specific case.

“The regional staff ― and, ultimately, the Board ― will carefully and objectively consider any challenges raised through these established channels, which include opportunities to seek expedited review,” Blado said.

A hearing is scheduled Tuesday for board officials to hear Starbucks’ objections to the Overland Park election. However, Starbucks asked that the hearing be put on hold “until there has been a thorough investigation” and the results are made public.

Starbucks Workers United, the campaign that has unionized more than 200 stores since December, called the company’s allegations and demands “absurd,” saying that it’s now ”in vogue for the losers of some elections nationwide to attempt to reverse elections by any means they think are necessary.”

“Starbucks is simultaneously claiming to stand for voter protections, and then asking that all elections be suspended nationwide,” said Michelle Eisen, a union leader and barista in Buffalo, New York. “This is hypocrisy at its finest.”

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is seen in an undated photo. The National Labor Relations Board’s regional offices have brought 19 complaints against the company alleging that it broke the law fighting unionization efforts.

Leigh Vogel via Getty Images

The results in the April election in Overland Park are still not final. An initial count showed that workers voted 6-1 in favor of unionizing, but there were seven challenged ballots that could change the outcome. The board sets aside challenged ballots unopened, then must determine the eligibility of the workers who cast them (for example, managers cannot vote in union elections).

In the version of events laid out in Starbucks’ letter, several Overland Park workers apparently did not receive their mail-in ballots due to a mix-up by board officials. The company says the union’s lawyer flagged the missing ballots for a board official, who then arranged for workers to vote in person at a board office.

The company said it wasn’t aware of these accommodations, and accused the board of “collaborating” with the union to “increase the number of pro-Union votes.”

“Starbucks is simultaneously claiming to stand for voter protections, and then asking that all elections be suspended nationwide. This is hypocrisy at its finest.”

– Starbucks barista and union leader Michelle Eisen

A Starbucks store in Buffalo was the very first to unionize late last year. In a matter of months, the union Workers United has managed to win 221 store elections, of which all but 11 have been certified as official by the labor board, according to data provided Friday by the NLRB. Forty-six stores have voted against unionization, giving the union a win rate of 81%. The union says the election data shows that “workers have spoken loud and clear.”

The union has accused Starbucks of violating the law throughout the campaign by closing stores, firing pro-union workers and promising benefits for workers who choose not to unionize. Starbucks claims that none of these moves were retaliatory, but the labor board’s general counsel has found merit in many of the union’s allegations and has filed complaints based on them. The charges are still being litigated.

In its letter to the board on Monday, Starbucks asked that officials make clear to the public that there have been no official findings of lawbreaking yet.

“All existing unfair labor practice cases only involve allegations,” the company wrote.