Starbucks Emails Describe Efforts to Stop Unionization
Wall Street Journal
By KRIS MAHER
January 9, 2008 9:21 p.m.
A series of emails by Starbucks Corp. managers sheds light on the
company's efforts to thwart union organizing among its baristas.
The emails, which are part of a labor-dispute proceeding in New York and
were reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, open a rare window onto the
company's labor relations practices. Labor experts not involved with the
case said the activity is not illegal. But the emails could prove
embarrassing because they show managers using various methods to identify
The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, has been trying to organize
workers at Starbucks since 2004 and has been able to organize only several
dozen at a handful of stores in New York and a few other cities.
According to several emails, in early 2006, Starbucks managers discovered
that two pro-union employees in New York were graduates of a Cornell
University labor program. According to an email, managers took the names
of graduates from an online Cornell discussion group and the school's Web
site and cross-checked them with employee lists nationwide. They found
that three employees in California, Michigan and Illinois were graduates
of the program and recommended that local managers be informed.
The emails are exhibits in a pending case before an administrative law
judge in New York. Brandon Borrman, a Starbucks spokesman, said most of
the documents relate to issues that were already settled in a separate
agreement with the National Labor Relations Board, in which the company
didn't admit any wrongdoing. He said the claims in that case were baseless
but declined to comment on specifics, and said disclosure of the documents
violates a confidentiality order.
Referring to Starbucks employees as partners, he said: "We honor the free
choices of partners, and we strictly comply with labor laws, including
those for organizing activities. It is unfortunate that a small group of
activists continues to misrepresent itself as speaking on behalf of more
than 150,000 partners world-wide when it does not."
In the pending NLRB case in New York, the IWW has accused Starbucks of
committing about 30 labor law violations during 2005 and 2006. The union
argues that the company's effort to identify union supporters was part of
a broader campaign of unlawful activity, and it argues that the company
discharged three employees because they supported the union.
"What possible nondiscriminatory reason could Starbucks come up with to
scrutinize Cornell graduates working at the company?" said Daniel Gross, a
former barista in New York. He alleges that he was fired in August 2006
because he is a union activist, and his termination is a subject of the
pending NLRB case.
Workers at Starbucks often have higher pay and better benefits than
typical part-time food-service employees. Starbucks in 2006 said its New
York baristas typically start at about $8.75 an hour. According to the
Department of Labor, the group that includes counter attendants, cafeteria
workers, food-concession workers and coffee-shop workers had a median wage
of $7.76 that same year.
The company emails show that managers have been fighting the union since
2004. "Below is a summary of the recent developments in New York City
regarding our attempts to thwart a potential union situation," begins an
email dated Oct. 29, 2004 by a Starbucks New York regional official.
In subsequent emails, managers identify whether an employee is an "IWW
supporter" and discuss when pro-union employees will be reviewed and those
that are "at risk" of being terminated.
Taking action against an employee based on union sympathies, such as
firing an employee or directly asking if they support the union, would be
illegal, said Chuck Cohen, a former member of the National Labor Relations
Board and a partner at Morgan Lewis & Bockius in Washington. But
"employers speculating about individual union sympathies is not unlawful,"
Several times, managers expressed concern that emails could turn up in a
legal case. On May 13, 2005, a manager warned: "Also, not to sound too 007
here but I am going to ask that we delete these messages after reading and
stick to verbal conversations as none of this is protected under attorney
client privilege and is subject to full disclosure."
In an email the prior day, the manager suggested that managers avoid "any
specific language around 'union avoidance,'" and added, "It's semantics
but we really wan [sic] to avoid any wording that suggests we engaged in
counter union activity."
In other emails, managers discuss employee relationships to discern their
union preferences. In one case, managers sought information about a
Halloween party employees attended, and noted that a discussion about the
union between two employees ended in part because they "were attracted to
each other and this became the focus of their evening."
Write to Kris Maher at kris.maher(a)wsj.com
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