Starbucks’ Grand(e) Idea: Freshly Brewed Union-Busting

by Chris Colloton, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review Vol. 91

I. Introduction

On December 9th, 2021, nineteen workers at a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York voted to form a union, becoming the first of the company’s nearly 9,000 U.S. locations to unionize.1Alina Selyukh, Starbucks Workers Form Their 1st Union in a Big Win For Labor, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Dec. 9, 2021, 3:28 PM), []. The decision by these baristas and shift supervisors to form a union not only represented a watershed moment for the ubiquitous coffee chain, but also signaled the U.S. labor movement’s resurgence after several decades of decline.2Id.; see also Rani Molla, What The First Starbucks Union Means For Workers Everywhere, (Dec. 9, 2021, 3:30 PM), [] (showing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that the share of American workers belonging to unions had been steadily decreasing from 20% in 1985, but experienced an uptick in 2020 to 11%). Indeed, since the Buffalo shop’s successful effort approximately a year ago, more than 6,000 workers at 245 Starbucks stores across 34 states have voted to join the Starbucks Workers United Union.3Andrea Hsu, Starbucks Workers Have Unionized At Record Speed; Many Fear Retaliation Now, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Oct. 2, 2022 5:00 AM), []; see also Press Release, Starbucks Workers United, Starbucks Workers Unionize in the Nation’s Capital (Sept. 30, 2022), []. Moreover, Americans’ approval of labor unions is at seventy one percent, its highest point in almost sixty years.4Justin McCarthy, U.S. Approval of Labor Unions at Highest Point Since 1965, Gallup (Aug. 30, 2022), [] (stating that 71% of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest figure Gallup has recorded since 1965). The response by Starbucks, however, has been wholly unsurprising given the corporation’s well-documented antipathy toward labor organization.5Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s History of Union-Busting, More Perfect Union (Mar. 16, 2022), [] (detailing long-time Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz’s efforts to quash union activity, ranging from his approval of a decertification campaign to oust union members in the 1980s to his successful lobby against the 2009 Employee Free Choice Act, which would have facilitated the unionization process). Led by CEO Howard Schultz, the coffee giant has taken aggressive retaliatory steps, including dispatching anti-union communications to its employees, firing workers identified as union leaders, and announcing raises for nonunion stores only.6See Hsu, supra note 3 (indicating the National Labor Relations Board has been charged with investigating more than 325 unfair labor practice charges brought by the SB Workers United union). 

Most recently, Starbucks announced a new student loan repayment tool and savings account program for its entire U.S. workforce – except for those employees who have unionized.7Courtney Vinopal, Starbucks Is Stepping Up Its Anti-Union Campaign With New Benefits for Non-Unionized Workers, Observer (Sept. 13, 2022, 12:57 PM), []. This article explores Starbucks’ latest reprisal, ostensibly aimed at discouraging workers from engaging in further organizational activity. The article begins by providing a brief summary of applicable labor law in the United States, as well as a more detailed examination of Starbucks’ history of union-busting behavior. It continues with an overview of Starbucks’ latest anti-union initiative and discusses the potential legal ramifications of such efforts. Finally, the article concludes by arguing that the coffee giant should relax its blatant attempts at thwarting employee unionization and instead listen to its employees’ workplace demands.

II. Background

A. The National Labor Relations Act

In the United States, the foremost body of law governing labor issues is the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).8National Labor Relations Act, Nat’l Labor Relations Bd., [] (last visited Oct. 19, 2022). Passed by Congress in 1935, the NLRA encourages collective bargaining between employees and their employers by protecting workers’ fundamental freedom of association derived from the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.9Id.; see also Right of Association, Justia US Law, [] (last visited Oct. 19, 2022) (stating that “the right of association is derivative from the First Amendment guarantees of speech, assembly, and petition”). At its core, the law enables employees to organize unions to bargain with employers for fair wages, safe workplace conditions, and enhanced benefits.10Employee Rights Under the National Labor Relations Act, Nat’l Labor Relations Bd.,×11.pdf [] (last visited Oct. 19, 2022) (indicating that the NLRA applies only to private-sector employees, and those individuals who work for public, government-run employers must look to their state’s relevant labor law for protection of their workplace rights). In addition, the NLRA established the National Labor Relations Board (“Board”), an independent federal agency charged with enforcing the NLRA’s guarantees.11Introduction to the NLRB, Nat’l Labor Relations Bd., [] (last visited Oct. 19, 2022). The Board is a five-member, quasi-judicial body, appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, that adjudicates disputes in administrative proceedings.12Id.; see also Administrative Proceeding Definition, Law Insider, [] (last visited Oct. 26, 2022) (defining “administrative proceeding” as a non-judicial process that is adjudicatory in nature in order to determine fault or liability, often occurring before government agencies, such as the Securities Exchange Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and the National Labor Relations Board). Further, the NLRA provides for a General Counsel of the Board, independent from the Board itself, who is charged with investigating and prosecuting alleged unfair labor practices.13Id.

The two most relevant provisions of the NLRA are Section 7 and Section 8, which together address employer interference with employee rights.14Interfering With Employee Rights (Section 7 & 7(a)(1)), Nat’l Labor Relations Bd., [] (last visited Oct. 19, 2022). Section 7 of the NLRA states that employees have “the right to form, join, or assist labor organizations . . . to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining . . . and shall also have the right to refrain from any or all of such activities.”15National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 157 (1935). Importantly, the NLRA does not mandate union membership, but instead gives every worker a choice whether or not to participate.16Id. Section 8 of the NLRA outlines unfair labor practices on behalf of an employer.17National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1) (1935). Accordingly, an employer is prohibited from interfering with, restraining, or coercing its employees in the exercise of their rights under Section 7.18Id.

Under Section 8, employers are generally barred from making unilateral changes to union workers’ terms and conditions of employment without bargaining.19Robert Iafolla, Starbucks’ Nonunion Worker Pay Bumps Raise Labor Law Red Flags, Bloomberg Law (Sept. 7, 2022, 5:30 AM), []. Still, the NLRB may deem it illegal discrimination where a company fails to provide unionized employees with benefits and pay raises that it gives to its nonunion workers.20Id. Whether the Board chooses to pursue legal action against an employer for disparate workplace treatment of its unionized and nonunionized employees hinges upon a showing of anti-union animus.21Id. In 1948, the Board held in Shell Oil Co. that employers can in fact treat union and nonunion employees differently, so long as the unequal treatment is not rooted in a fundamental animosity toward unions.22Id.; see also In re Shell Oil Co., Inc., 77 N.L.R.B. 1306 (1948). To determine the motivation behind an employer’s particular policy or workplace treatment, the Board has utilized a three-part analysis set forth in its 1980 Wright Line decision.23Id. 

B. The Wright Line Standard & Tschiggfrie’s Clarification

In Wright Line, the Board held that to establish a violation under the NLRA, the General Counsel must demonstrate: (1) union or protected concerted activity, (2) employer knowledge of that activity, and (3) union animus on the part of the employer.24Bernard J. Bobber & Jesse R. Dill, NLRB Explains When Granting Benefits to Nonunion Employees and Withholding the Same From Union Workers Can Be Lawful, Ogletree Deakins (July 17, 2009), []; see also Wright Line, A Div. of Wright Line, Inc., 251 N.L.R.B. 1083 (1980). If the General Counsel meets his or her burden and makes a prima facie showing that supports the inference that the union or protected conduct was a “motivating factor” in the employer’s decision, the burden then shifts to the employer to demonstrate that it would have implemented the same policy even in the absence of the protected conduct.25See Wright Line, supra note 26, at 1089; see also Iafolla, supra note 21. The Board explained that in cases where the alleged violation turns on employer motivation, its role is to identify a causal connection between “employees engaging in union . . . activities and actions on the part of their employer which detrimentally affect such employees’ employment.”26See Wright Line, supra note 26, at 1089.

Despite Wright Line’s express command that the Board establish a causal relationship between employees’ union membership and their employer’s purported unlawful act, subsequent decisions by the Board have seemingly contradicted this directive.27Tom Luetkemeyer, NLRB Clarifies “Wright Line” Test, Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP (Dec. 12, 2019), [] (noting that previous cases, such as Libertyville Toyota, 360 NLRB 1298 (2014) suggested that any evidence of anti-union animus sufficed to satisfy the Wright Line test). As a result, confusion has emerged surrounding what precisely the General Counsel must provide to satisfy its initial burden under the Wright Line standard.28Id. Put simply, the question was whether evidence of any employer animus or hostility toward unions was sufficient, or whether the General Counsel had to furnish evidence of a causal relationship between the employees’ protected activity and the alleged adverse action on the part of the employer.29Id.

In 2019, the Board in Tschiggfrie Properties, Ltd. clarified the burden of proof under the Wright Line framework.30Tschiggfrie Properties, Ltd., 2019 NLRB LEXIS 657, *1 (N.L.R.B. Nov. 22, 2019). Following criticism from both the Seventh and Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeals about applying the incorrect proof paradigm, the Board reiterated that Wright Line is “inherently a causation test,” and that properly applied, the evidence of animus must support a determination that a nexus exists between the employee’s union activity and the employer’s supposed unlawful behavior.31See Luetkemeyer, supra note 27. The Board continued by explaining that an employer’s general opposition to unions, while highly significant in assessing whether the motive behind a policy or act was discriminatory, does not by itself “supply the element of unlawful motive.”32Tschiggfrie, supra note 30 at *11. The Board then addressed the numerous prior decisions – namely, Libertyville Toyota – that disregarded this so-called “fourth element” of Wright Line and explicitly overruled them.33Id. at *29-30 (asserting that the “identification of a casual nexus as a separate element that the General Counsel must establish . . . is superfluous because ‘the ultimate inquiry’ is whether there is a nexus between the employee’s protected activity and the challenged adverse employment action”) (emphasis added). Nevertheless, the Board in Tschiggfrie took care to explain that the General Counsel need not produce only direct evidence of anti-union animus to satisfy its initial burden under Wright Line.34Id. at *33. Instead, proof of discriminatory motive behind an employment action can be rooted in direct evidence or inferred from the circumstances based on the record as a whole.35Id. Accordingly, the three elements of the Wright Line test remain intact; the General Counsel simply must provide evidence that sufficiently establishes a causal connection between the employee’s protected union activity and the employer’s adverse action or policy.36Id. at *35-36.

C. History of Unions at Starbucks

Although the Buffalo, New York Starbucks store marked the first of the company’s current unionized coffeeshops, Starbucks has dealt with organization efforts in the past.37Jenn Chen, A Brief History of Coffee Unions, (Apr. 26, 2022), [] (noting that Starbucks saw its first union campaign in 1985, and has had several in the years since). The first union campaign at Starbucks occurred in 1985, when roughly 120 workers voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers (“UFCW”) labor union.38Id. The agreement secured health care coverage, paid vacation time, and sick leave to these hourly Starbucks workers, most of whom were employed at the company’s roasting plant.39Eric Scigliano, How Howard Schultz Left A Bitter Taste in Seattle’s Mouth, Politico (Feb. 8, 2019), []. The CEO, Schultz, who rejoined Starbucks in 1987, touted these benefits and even went as far to claim his company was “the first . . . in America to provide comprehensive health insurance to part-time people.”40Id. In reality, the aforementioned benefits were won through the collective bargaining efforts of the UFCW, not Schultz’s generosity. Moreover, while the CEO claims a barista led the effort to decertify the stores’ contract with the UFCW – a move that eventually took place in 1992 – union workers say that Starbucks management actually filed the decertification petition.41Id.; see also Chen, supra note 36.

Under Schultz’s reign, the company has forcefully (and successfully) beat back subsequent unionization campaigns.42See Scigliano, supra note 38. In the late 1990s, after employees at twelve stores in British Columbia voted to join a union, Starbucks unleashed a fierce campaign to stop them: fighting for over a year and a half over the terms of a three-year contract, and then granting all the benefits it negotiated to non-union stores in the area to discourage those other locations from organizing.43Id. Then, in 2004, the Industrial Workers of the World (“IWW”) began a grassroots campaign it called the “Starbucks Workers Union” across the United States, largely seeking higher wages and a more stable work schedule.44Dave Jamieson, Howard Schultz And Starbucks’ Long History of Fending Off Unions, (Jan. 31, 2019, 7:00 PM), []. In response, Schultz dispatched a company-wide voicemail that was transcribed and displayed in stores in which he expressed his disappointment that these workers had chosen to form a union.45Id. Schultz successfully discouraged the IWW election from taking place, but his intimidation tactics prompted the NLRB to charge Starbucks with multiple violations of labor law stemming from its measures to stop the Starbucks Workers Union.46Id. Those investigations revealed that Starbucks management had coordinated a response to the unionization efforts and even screened employees to attempt to discern any union sympathies.47Id. And amidst the most recent unionization effort amongst workers across the nation, Starbucks has responded by withholding from its union employees pay raises and other work perks, including faster sick-time accrual and a less restrictive dress code.48Melissa Santos, Starbucks Accused of Withholding Benefits As Union-Busting Tactic, Axios (Aug. 25, 2022), [] (referring to a complaint filed by the NLRB Seattle office in August 2022 that accuses Starbucks of engaging in unfair labor practices by not granting the same benefits to all of its employees).

In September 2022, Starbucks intensified its anti-union crusade by rolling out two new benefits: a student loan repayment program and company-sponsored savings account.49See Vinopal, supra note 7. Crucially, however, these perks are available only to U.S. Starbucks employees who are not union members.50Id. The student loan program, which the company has termed its “Student Loan Management Benefit,” aims to help eligible employees manage their student loan repayments through different tools such as individual coaching, consolidated debt summaries, and refinancing options.51Starbucks Announces Student Loan Management and Savings Programs To Support Partner (Employee) Financing Well-Being, Starbucks Stories & News (Sept. 12, 2022), []. The new savings account benefit, coined “My Starbucks Savings,” will be introduced in partnership with Fidelity and will allow eligible employees to contribute a percentage of their after-tax pay to a personal savings account.52Id.

III. Discussion

Starbucks’ decision to reward its non-union employees is nothing new to its unionized workforce.53See Vinopal, supra note 7. In May 2022, the company similarly disclosed wage increases for its non-unionized employees.54Id. While the Board has already filed numerous complaints against the company for potential violations under the NLRA, some commentators believe Starbucks’ measures – clearly intended to thwart unionization efforts – have begun to work.55Id. According to a study completed by the People’s Policy Project, the number of filings for union elections at Starbucks stores dropped by almost seventy percent between May and July of 2022.56Id. Still, tensions remain high, with union workers at the company’s Seattle roastery store striking in protest of the corporation’s “aggressive union busting campaign” in September 2022.57Id.

The question remains whether the Board will pursue legal action against Starbucks over its latest step, but given its recent precedent as well as pushback from politicians and labor leaders alike, such a move seems inevitable.58US Senators Ask Starbucks to Disclose Details On ‘Union-Busting Tactics’, Reuters (Oct. 5, 2022), [] (commenting that Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey, Richard Blumenthal, and Bernie Sanders have asked the company to disclose how much it has spent on lawyers and consulting fees to counter union organization efforts); see also Hsu, supra note 3 (noting that NLRB offices across the country have issued 35 formal complaints against Starbucks). Starbucks vehemently maintains that the new benefit rollout is legal, arguing that U.S. labor law forbids them from extending benefits to unionized stores without “good faith collective bargaining.”59Sarah Todd, Starbucks Is Raising Pay – But Only For Workers at Non-Union Stores, Quartz (Aug. 5, 2022, 2:11 PM), []. As union advocates correctly observe, however, Starbucks’ latest offering is yet another anti-union missive in a long series of less-than-subtle tactics aimed at dispelling organization efforts.60Id.

Under the NLRA, it is true that companies cannot make unilateral changes in the terms and conditions of employment during the collective-bargaining agreement term.61Id.; see also Bargaining In Good Faith With Employees’ Union Representative (Section 8(d) & 8(a)(5)), Nat’l Labor Relations Bd., [] (last visited Oct. 23, 2022). The purpose of such a ban is to prevent companies from making changes that indicate to employees that the union does not possess any legitimate power.62See Todd, supra note 57. An exception to this prohibition occurs when a union, as Starbucks Workers United contends they have, waives its right to bargain over wages and other benefits.63Id. Indeed, after Starbucks’ May 2022 pay increase for only its non-union workers – a disparate benefit akin to the company’s most recent benefit rollout – Starbucks Workers United sent a letter in July 2022 that explicitly waived any objections to Starbucks extending to its unionized employees the same pay bump or improved benefits it offered to its non-union workforce.64Id. Thus, in light of the Starbucks’ union’s express waiver, the company is permitted under the NLRA to provide the new savings account and student loan repayment programs to its employees at unionized stores. That Starbucks chose not to unilaterally extend these benefits to its entire employee base and intentionally exclude its organized workers appears especially sinister.

Should the Board file a complaint on behalf of the workers’ union against Starbucks over its latest move, the Tschiggfrie decision suggests the union may prevail. Although the Board in Tschiggfrie seemingly heightened the burden of proof by emphasizing the causal connection requirement of the Wright Line test, the General Counsel can still show anti-union animus through direct or circumstantial evidence.65See Luetkemeyer, supra note 27. In other words, a “smoking gun” is not necessary; the Board can look to the totality of the circumstances to determine whether the employer harbors blatant hostility toward union activity such that it motivated the particular employment action in dispute. While Starbucks may contend it has legitimate reasons to withhold benefits for union workers related to bargaining strategy, the Board could point to a number of the company’s previous statements and policies to support its allegation that Starbucks was purposely trying to quash union activity.66See Iafolla, supra note 21. For example, it has become common practice for Starbucks to fire workers in retaliation for union membership or activism.67Steven Greenhouse, How Faux-Progressive Starbucks Is Fighting Unionization, The American Prospect (Aug. 17, 2022), [] (noting that Starbucks Workers United claims Starbucks has illegally fired more than 70 baristas in retaliation for their union support). In October 2022, a Board judge ruled that the company had illegally fired a Michigan barista because she had helped gather support for unionizing her Ann Arbor location.68Josh Eidelson, Starbucks Illegally Fired A Michigan Employee For Her Union Activism, a National Labor Relations Board Judge Ruled, Fortune (Oct. 7, 2022, 5:33 PM), [].

Other suspicious practices by Starbucks include: closing stores with active organization drives, turning unionized stores into training centers, and cutting baristas’ hours in an apparent attempt to get pro-union workers to quit.69See Greenhouse, supra note 64. And in another twisted – albeit timely – effort to stymie union organization, Starbucks, in the wake of Dobbs’ reversal of Roe v. Wade, announced that it would subsidize travel to its employees seeking abortion access, but that it could not guarantee such benefits to employees at its unionized shops.70Id. Finally, the distinction Starbucks has made between its non-unionized and unionized employees with respect to workplace benefits is, by itself, likely insufficient to show anti-union animus.71See Bobber & Dill, supra note 26 (noting that the dispute between the majority and dissent in Merck, Sharp & Dohme Corp. centered on whether the mere distinction between nonunion and union employees demonstrated anti-union hostility). However, if the distinction is considered with the foregoing instances of questionable behavior toward its union workers, the Board would likely conclude that Starbucks acted with an improper – and unlawful – motive by extending these new workplace benefits to only those employees not engaged in protected union activity.

IV. Conclusion

Starbucks’ recent introduction of a savings account program and student loan repayment tool for its non-union employees should be characterized as nothing more than a continuation of the company’s well-established pattern of flagrant union-busting.72John Logan, Starbucks’ Howard Schultz Should Win an Award For the Nation’s Most Flagrant Union Buster, Jacobin (July 23, 2022), []. By withholding these programs from its unionized stores, Starbucks is unfairly deterring thousands of its employees across the country from exercising their fundamental right to organize and bargain for fair pay, safe workplace conditions, and competitive benefits.73Id. And coupled with the widely-documented practices of intimidation and coercion of union workers, Starbucks’ decision to treat its unionized workers differently only leaves the coffee giant more vulnerable to further litigation for potential violations of federal labor law.74Id.

Cover Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash


  • Chris Colloton is a native of Cincinnati and received his B.A. in Spanish Language from The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Prior to law school, Chris worked in the corporate retail industry as a merchandise planner for five years. He is especially interested in legal issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community, constitutional law, and the intersection of law and business.


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