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Another Voice: Starbucks saga shows that labor law stops workers from organizing

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Buffalo made international news recently for the efforts undertaken by workers at Starbucks to join a union. On Aug. 30, workers at three Starbucks locations (Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, Camp Road in Hamburg and Genesee Street in Cheektowaga), petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election so that workers could vote on whether they wished to be represented by Workers United.

Each store employs about 25 workers. Instead of agreeing to allow a vote at each store, Starbucks hired high-priced lawyers from Ohio, New Jersey and Long Island to launch an all-out war against the workers. The stated goal is to prevent unionization at all costs.

Because the National Labor Relations Act has not been meaningfully updated to protect workers since it was created in 1935, its antiquated procedures allow employers to delay an election for weeks and game the system in many ways, including surveilling, intimidating, cajoling and dividing and conquering workers.

First, Starbucks argues that instead of three stores, 20 stores in the Buffalo region, totaling 400 employees, should be included in a vote whether to organize or not. Starbucks makes this argument despite losing the same argument at the NLRB in the past. The law is clear that a single store is allowed to have its own election.

Starbucks knows that it will likely lose this argument, but by buying itself a long delaying in the vote, it becomes more likely that there is a lower win rate for the union. The law permits Starbucks to force the government (using our tax dollars) to hold a hearing it dragged out over six days. Starbucks called numerous witnesses, introduced many exhibits, and filed a 55-page post-hearing brief on Oct. 14.

Meanwhile, what has happened to workers as they have waited since Aug. 30 for the NLRB to order an election? A campaign of intimidation: The Elmwood facility was closed for renovations, a Cheektowaga store was made into a training facility, dozens of workers were hired to pack the voting unit, and high-level Starbucks executives have flown in from around the country to hold mandatory captive meetings with employees to bombard them with veiled threats and implicit bribes. The president of Starbucks North America (estimated to earn an annual compensation package in the millions) is sitting in Buffalo cafés watching employees work.

Two-thirds of Americans approve of unions, yet only 6.3% of the private workforce is organized. The Starbucks campaign is a textbook example of why the law is designed to make sure that business wins out over workers’ wishes to organize. It is time for an overhaul of U.S. labor law.

Catherine Creighton, a lawyer, is director of the Cornell University School of Industrial Labor Relations Buffalo Co-lab.

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