Starbucks Corp. interim Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz made comments during an April meeting with employees that US labor officials view as an illegal anti-union threat, according to a complaint Friday.
In that meeting, an employee asked Schultz about retaliation against union supporters. He told the worker, “I’m sensing a lot of anger from you about Starbucks,” and “If you hate Starbucks so much, why don’t you work somewhere else?”
The employee later resigned from the company.
US labor board prosecutors alleged in a complaint filed Friday that Schultz “threatened employees with discharge by inviting employees to quit their employment because they engaged in union and/or protected concerted activities.”
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The complaint was filed by the agency’s acting Los Angeles regional director on behalf of the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel. It seeks to force Schultz to attend a meeting with Starbucks employees at which either he or a representative of the labor board would read a notice about workers’ rights.
Starbucks has denied wrongdoing and has said repeatedly that any claims of anti-union activity on its part are “categorically false.” Schultz “aimed to bring the focus of the meeting to the task at hand” after the activist “attempted to divert” it, the company said previously.
“Our focus right now is on working side-by-side with our partners to listen, learn and reinvent the Starbucks experience,” Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull said in an emailed statement on Friday. “Our hope is the union would respect our right to listen to, collaborate with and share the facts with our partners — just as we respect their right to do so.”
Because of Schultz’s total control over working conditions and the tone in which he spoke, his comments constituted an implied threat to retaliate against workers who try to organize, the union’s attorney Gabe Frumkin said in an interview Friday.
For employees watching the interaction, he said, Schultz’s dressing down of the employee “shows that they can either change the terms of your work relationship, or end it entirely based on the fact that a worker has voiced support for a union.”
NLRB regional directors across the country have issued dozens of complaints accusing Starbucks of unlawfully trying to defeat the union drive spreading through its stores, including through illegal surveillance, threats and retaliation against pro-union staff.
Agency judges recently issued rulings on two of those complaints, ordering Starbucks to reinstate fired activists in Michigan and Kansas. In another case, which an agency judge considered at a trial this week in Seattle, NLRB prosecutors contend that Schultz threatened employees when he said on a video call that new perks being granted elsewhere would have to be withheld from unionized stores.
Complaints issued by labor board prosecutors are considered by administrative law judges, whose rulings can be appealed to NLRB members in Washington and from there to federal court. The agency can order companies to change policies that conflict with the law, but generally cannot hold executives personally liable or issue punitive damages for violations.
The union, Starbucks Workers United, has prevailed in elections at around 250 of Starbucks’ 9,000 company-run US cafes over the past year, though the pace of new unionization petitions has slowed in recent months.
Photograph: Howard Schultz, interim chief executive officer, of Starbucks. Photo credit: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg
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