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Federal complaint spotlights Starbucks' Buffalo activities in union battle

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A federal complaint filed against Starbucks accuses the company of employee surveillance, intimidation and other illegal workplace behavior toward employees of its Buffalo-area stores.

The complaint, filed Friday by the National Labor Relations Board's regional director in Buffalo, builds on charges local Starbucks workers have filed against the company since Starbucks Workers United launched organizing campaigns last year. Starbucks has denied in engaging in anti-union or illegal activity.

Starbucks complaint

An NLRB official has filed a complaint against Starbucks. (News file photo)

The complaint calls for Starbucks to reinstate six fired employees and compensate them for lost pay.

In response, Starbucks said the lawsuit filed by NLRB regional director Linda Leslie "involves important issues."

"Starbucks does not agree that the claims have merit, and the complaint’s issuance does not constitute a finding by the NLRB," the company said. "It is the beginning of a litigation process that permits both sides to be heard and to present evidence."

Union campaigns have sprung up at Starbucks stores around the country. But the Buffalo area, where the organizing began, has been a focal point of Starbucks officials' attention. Among the accusations in the complaint:

• Some Starbucks officials promised employees enhanced benefits and improved terms and conditions of employment "if they refrained from union organizational activity." At the Williamsville Place store, a Starbucks official reportedly promised workers extensive store renovations and conversion to a drive-thru and mobile ordering store if they refrained from union activity.

• The company since last September "has been creating the impression" among employees that their activities were under surveillance by their employer. The reported surveillance includes stationing support managers at Buffalo-area stores and having high-ranking officials of the company – including Rossann Williams, the company's North American president – "make unprecedented and repeated visits to each store."

Employees at some stores have complained about having their conversations on headsets monitored, being "interrogated" about wearing a union pin and being restricted from posting union literature, the complaint said.

Starbucks Workers United

Starbucks Workers United members rally outside a store in Amherst. (News file photo)

• Starbucks has enforced workplace rules "selectively and disparately by applying it more strictly against employees who formed, joined, or assisted the union."

• The company temporarily closed stores early to hold "anti-union meetings" – reducing workers' compensation on those days – and took away responsibility for hiring from store managers, giving those duties to "dedicated recruiters."

• Starbucks retaliated against individual employees by refusing to allow those employees to train new workers; denying or delaying requests for employees to transfer to other stores; "randomizing" employees' work shifts; and firing some employees.

• The company has held "mandatory or effectively mandatory captive-audience meetings" to discourage union activity, during which company representatives warned employees they would lose benefits or be denied new benefits if they joined a union.

Howard Schultz

Howard Schultz, interim CEO of Starbucks. (AP photo)

Starbucks Workers United said the complaint backs up accusations that workers have been making for months.

"Starbucks will be held accountable for the union-busting minefield they forced workers to walk through in fighting for their right to organize," the union said. "This complaint fully unmasks Starbucks’ facade as a ‘progressive company’ and exposes the truth of (interim CEO) Howard Schultz’s anti-union war."

The complaint directs Starbucks to respond by May 20. A hearing before an administrative law judge of the NLRB is scheduled for July 11.

Matt Glynn

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“The NLRB choosing to pursue a bargaining order at Camp Road is nothing short of exceptional. The partners at this location have been subjected to some of the most aggressive union-busting seen in recent years,” said Gianna Reeve, a shift supervisor at the store. “This is the first step for partners at my store to finally receive justice for what they have gone through.”

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