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Starbucks Managers Charged With Threatening Employees, Obsessing Over Dress Codes In New Labor Complaint

By Jordan Zakarin

In a federal complaint, Starbucks workers in Santa Cruz, CA, say their managers are carrying out a rash of illegal union-busting tactics, including threatening employees that they won’t be able to work at other Starbucks locations if they unionize, and retaliating against pro-union employees by selectively enforcing dress codes.

“It’s a lot of rules they’d never talked about before, like having a clean apron — our aprons get coffee, mocha, everything on them,” Joseph Thompson, a shift supervisor and union leader at the Ocean Street store in Santa Cruz, tells More Perfect Union. “It’s mostly the union leaders [that get reprimanded]. I specifically have gotten talked to about it several times.”

After years of encouraging workers to wear buttons and pins on their aprons, Starbucks has forbidden workers from wearing ones adorned with the Starbucks Workers United logo. The company’s rulebook only bans buttons that “advocate a political, religious or personal issue.” Thompson says managers forced him to take the union sticker off of a tip jar, as well.

Sudden dress code enforcement has been an issue in unionizing Starbucks locations across the country. One union leader in Colorado told More Perfect Union that workers at her store have taken to stashing shirts in their back break room in case management begins arbitrarily picking at their clothing on any given day.

Starbucks Workers United filed the new Unfair Labor Practices complaints with the NLRB on Tuesday on behalf of unionizing employees at two Starbucks locations in Santa Cruz. They allege that Starbucks management has “interfered with, restrained, and coerced its employees” who are seeking to organize stores on Ocean Street and Mission Street. Workers at those stores filed for a union election on January 21st and 31st, respectively.

The union lays out a number of more specific accusations against Starbucks in the filings, including falsely threatening workers about the consequences of unionizing, a spike in corporate surveillance on workers, and the strict enforcement of a series of rules that had long been disregarded by management.

Other rules besides the dress code are now being strictly enforced for the first time. Workers are not allowed to enter the store on their off hours, nor are they allowed to handle money unless they are the designated handler on duty, a break from their normal operations that slows down their service during fast-paced morning and afternoon shifts. 

Starbucks cited the cash-handling policy when firing seven unionizing workers in Memphis in February. The store’s former manager told More Perfect Union that the firings were unprecedented and “definitely union-busting.”

The Santa Cruz ULP filings come a little more than a week after Starbucks Workers United filed a massive Unfair Labor Practices complaint against the company over deep cuts in hours that were crippling workers’ incomes and putting their benefits in jeopardy. Thompson says the same thing is happening in his store.

“I’m living paycheck to paycheck and I can’t afford having my hours cut,” Thompson says. “I’m cutting into my savings. A lot of the partners here are feeling that.”

Neither Santa Cruz store has received an election date from the NLRB, which has yet to decide on an objection filed by Starbucks over the size of their bargaining unit. The company has been filing these appeals each time organizing workers seek an election. While the NLRB has ruled against Starbucks each time and recently set a precedent meant to speed up the process, Santa Cruz’s election petition was filed before the agency’s decision was made.

There are now more than 150 Starbucks stores seeking to unionize with Starbucks Workers United, spread out across 27 states.

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