Starbucks has closed two of its stores – one temporarily – and said it has nothing to do with the fact that workers at those locations were trying to form the company's first union.
Stores in the Elmwood Village and on Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga filed petitions for union votes Aug. 30. The Elmwood Village store closed this week for what the company said was a planned remodel and will reopen next week. The Cheektowaga store has been converted to a training center. Both stores were busy and profitable, the company said.
Starbucks representatives said it's common practice to close for remodeling and training, and that it has been done in other regions, including Indianapolis and California.
When the union campaign started, high-ranking Starbucks executives such as its executive vice president of U.S. retail and Canada, Rossann Williams, flew to Buffalo, spent significant time in stores and continue to maintain a presence. They held what they called "listening sessions" with workers that the company and workers said focused on union issues.
Unionization activity among workers at five Buffalo-area Starbucks cafes is being closely watched among retail companies, workers and consumers alike.
Five days after Starbucks United went to the company with its organizing efforts, Starbucks closed the Walden Store to address a longstanding problem with a bee infestation. After the store filed for a union vote, Starbucks announced it would convert the location to a training store. It has not set a reopening date, and said it is addressing other facility issues during the closure, such as plumbing.
Starbucks said workers had expressed a need for better training during listening sessions. The company stressed that the workers at those stores still have their jobs and have been offered hours at other stores.
Starbucks Workers United said it believes the company's actions are meant to disrupt union organizing, scatter pro-union workers and dilute their efforts – all common union-busting tactics.
Workers said enduring facility and training problems were not addressed until the locations attempted to form a union, and that the company hasn't shut down locations across the country that have requested help with similar issues.
"Starbucks split up an entire store that they knew had a strong union majority and prevented them from working together," said Casey Moore, a Starbucks Workers United worker at the Williamsville store.
That move, if granted, would likely delay the voting process and make it more difficult for organizers to win a majority in favor of a union, said the organizing workers and a labor expert.
Workers have said they feel daunted by the strong and sudden presence of Starbucks executives, and that closing down the store seemed to be a clear attempt at intimidation.
"A lot of our pro-union partners are not very open or vocal for fear of retaliation, so the likelihood of them carrying this message to other stores with managers that are not familiar with us is a lot less likely," said Michelle Eisen, who works at the Elmwood store.
Workers said executives spent the listening sessions hammering home their position against the union, and believe they used the sessions to identify anti-union employees to aid the company in stopping the organizing effort.
Stores on Elmwood Avenue, Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga, Transit Road in East Amherst, Camp Road in Hamburg and Genesee Street in Cheektowaga are all pressing toward a union vote; though Walden Avenue and Transit Road locations have since withdrawn their election petitions in an effort to speed up votes at the initial three stores that filed. The union vote was delayed when Starbucks asked the National Labor Relations Board to require all 20 stores in the Buffalo market to participate in the union vote.
There are other union organizing committees at almost all of the 20 stores, workers said.