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EXCLUSIVE: NLRB Files National Lawsuit Against Starbucks Over Anti-Worker Rules

Federal officials charge the company is systematically violating labor rights with its employee rulebook.

by Jordan Zakarin

The National Labor Relations Board has filed a major national lawsuit against Starbucks, charging that the company’s employee handbook imposes “overly-broad and discriminatory rules” that systematically violate workers’ labor rights.

The lawsuit was issued by the NLRB on May 4th after Starbucks failed to respond to a proposed settlement over the harassment and firing of several pro-union workers in Phoenix, Arizona. 

Starbucks’ Partner Guide, as the company calls it, lays a long list of strict guidelines that govern everything from workplace conduct and dress code to what workers can discuss outside of work and post online. 

The NLRB’s suit takes issue with 19 different sections of the handbook, each of which the agency alleges constitute “interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees in the exercise” of their right to form a union under the National Labor Relations Act.

Most of the rules function as gag orders on organizing workers, the NLRB says. The objections include:

  • Starbucks’ very specific dress code bans workers from wearing any union insignia, either on their shirts or on the pins on their aprons. 
  • A ban on video recording, audio recording, and photography stops workers from documenting their working conditions and advocating for improvements
  • The company’s confidentiality rule prevents workers from discussing the conditions of their employment and other issues they face
  • The ban on social media and unsanctioned interviews prevents workers from speaking out about their working conditions, their experiences on the job, and why they want a union
  • Starbucks’ harsh corrective action rules stops workers from engaging in protected organizing activities that are essential to unionizing.

The NLRB has given Starbucks a deadline of May 18th to reply to the lawsuit, with a court hearing set for June 14th. The company was also hit with an injunction over its illegal firing of workers in the Phoenix location, which has become one of the most high-profile fronts in its war on employees seeking representation with Starbucks Workers United. Workers at the store fell short in their union election on Thursday, 6-8, with eight challenged ballots outstanding. 

Starbucks has ramped up its union-busting efforts over the past month since Howard Schultz, the company’s billionaire founder, returned as CEO in early April. As More Perfect Union has reported, Schultz has pleaded with managers and other executives to crack down on workers, who he has called “adversaries” and “outside forces” in a number of public and private meetings.

The legal jousting between the union and Starbucks has continued to heat up, as well. The NLRB recently charged the company with improperly firing seven pro-union workers in Memphis, while Starbucks Workers United has filed more than 114 unfair labor practice charges over the past few months. Workers at more than 50 stores have voted to unionize, while 248 stores have petitioned for an election.

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