Labor laws are actually laws, but you wouldn’t know it to watch how some of the highest-profile retail companies in the country are responding to worker organizing efforts.
The last year has brought a wave of union organizing wins at the kind of businesses that had to this point successfully kept their workers from unionizing—Starbucks, Amazon, Apple, Trader Joe’s. The companies aren’t giving up, though. They’re still trying to crush their workers’ union efforts, and in doing so, they’re showing the world how far they’ll go, and how many tricks exist in the union-busting playbook.
It’s astonishing, really, how brazen it is—but breaking U.S. labor laws brings such weak penalties that these companies have no reason (other than the moral and ethical ones they don’t care about) not to violate laws to keep their workers from unionizing.
Take Starbucks, where the first corporate-owned stores unionized in December, 2021, in Buffalo, New York. Around 250 stores have since followed suit, showing workers’ enthusiasm for the union. But meanwhile, Starbucks has fired worker after worker after worker for their involvement in the union. Oh, sure, the company would say they were fired for committing violations of rules, but that’s an obvious lie. In one case, where Starbucks fired seven members of the organizing committee at a Memphis store, the company has already been forced to reinstate the workers after losing in court twice. But the Memphis Seven aren’t alone as victims of retaliatory firing. Other judges said workers in Michigan and Kansas and Missouri were fired illegally. Overall, Starbucks Workers United says more than 80 workers have been fired for their activism.
Starbucks doesn’t admit that any of these workers were fired for union participation (which is protected under the National Labor Relations Act), but Josh Eidelson recently reported that a former Buffalo store manager was told by higher-ups to punish union supporters. David Almond says he was given a list of union supporters and told to discipline them in ways that wouldn’t seem obviously connected to their activism.
In one instance, a district manager asked Almond about a specific employee, and refused to accept his a positive assessment of her. “She’s a long-term partner,” Almond quoted the district manager. “I’m sure there’s something in there we can use against her.”
And that’s the thing: If a manager looks hard enough, they can always find something to pin on a worker, because the reality is that in most workplaces in this country, there are policies on the books that are routinely broken—often because of the realities that managers create.
Then there’s Amazon, where an independent union won a shocking victory at a Staten Island, New York, warehouse in April. A subsequent vote at another Staten Island warehouse was unsuccessful, but an election is ongoing at a warehouse near Albany, New York, and workers at a Southern California warehouse are also seeking an election. But Amazon, too, is going hard to bust its union.
The online retail giant has fired multiple activist workers on Staten Island; a union leader in Kentucky; a union supporter in Bessemer, Alabama, where the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union has sought to unionize a warehouse; and two Maryland workers involved in another independent organizing effort. (Amazon even fired a group of managers at the Staten Island warehouse that unionized, seemingly because they failed to quash the effort.)
“It’s widespread,” ALU lawyer Seth Goldstein told NBC News. “Amazon’s MO is to fire everybody — all the labor organizers. That’s why we need intervention through the federal government.”
As workers in Buffalo organized last year, Starbucks temporarily closed two stores, one for renovations and the other supposedly to use as a training center (not how Starbucks usually trains workers), with new hires indoctrinated against the union. Starbucks’ closure of an Ithaca store was also suspected to be related to union activity—it was one of three stores in the city that had unionized and the only one that had held a strike, but it was also one of the busiest stores in the city.
Trader Joe’s also closed a New York City wine store just before workers at the store were going to go public with a union drive. Trader Joe’s also fired a worker in Brooklyn just after a union drive went public.
RAISES AND NEW BENEFITS … BUT NOT FOR UNION WORKERS
In addition to its campaign of intimidation and firing against union-supporting workers, Starbucks has also made clear to workers in its thousands of stores that haven’t yet unionized that they will suffer if they organize. The company extended new pay raises and benefits, but only to stores that haven’t unionized. Executives claim that they can’t unilaterally change working conditions for stores that have unionized but not yet bargained contracts (which the company is dragging its feet on, predictably, in yet another effort to undermine the union), but the union said it would accept those changes, and, of course, Starbucks still refused to give all its workers the raises and benefits. That’s the subject of yet another NLRB complaint, with the labor board saying Starbucks owes union workers back pay and benefits. (Overall, the NLRB has issued dozens of complaints against Starbuck, and one complaint can involve a lot of separate violations of the National Labor Relations Act—more than 200, in one case in Buffalo.)
Starbucks isn’t alone in that maneuver. Apple is doing the same thing, in the wake of a Maryland store unionizing and as an Oklahoma (Oklahoma, seriously!) store prepared to vote. The company announced new benefits at other stores, but insisted the Maryland store would have to bargain for what other stores were getting automatically.
In a related move, Amazon threatened that workers could lose benefits if they unionized, the Amazon Labor Union charged, with the NLRB finding merit to that claim.
INTIMIDATION BY MANAGERS
“Captive audience” meetings are a key union-busting technique, widely employed for decades. In those, workers are called into meetings to be intimidated by managers, either in groups or one on one. NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo is taking aim at the practice, calling the meetings “inherently coercive.”
Starbucks workers around the country have described being harassed and rebuked by managers, and even recorded some of those interactions:
Workers at Starbucks and Amazon locations with union drives have also described being barraged with anti-union text messages.
At the Oklahoma City Apple store, managers were singling workers out for individual meetings to intimidate them away from union support. “There’s probably been over a hundred conversations involving management speaking to employees about unions,” one worker told More Perfect Union. Apple, like Starbucks in the initial Buffalo union campaign, is also flooding the store with extra managers so that workers are always under surveillance. Despite that, when votes were counted on Friday, the union won big, 56 to 32.
BIG-BUCKS UNION-BUSTING CONSULTANTS
There’s a whole industry of anti-unions lawyers and consultants, and it is reaping a bonanza as these companies try to crush union organizing. Amazon spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants in 2021, Dave Jamieson reported, and Starbucks used notorious anti-union law firm Littler Mendelson to carry out a strategy of attempting to delay or prevent elections.
“Under the title ‘Union Prevention,’ [Littler Mendelson’s] website states, ‘We help employers develop strategies for dealing with union avoidance’ so they can ‘detect early warning signs of organizing activities, and minimize the risk of organizing campaigns,’” labor scholar John Logan has written. “Arthur Mendelson, one of the firm’s founding partners, explained its approach to union campaigns: ’Our clients pay a lot of money…. If they want aggressiveness, they are entitled to it’. A 1997 profile in the Washington Post stated that Littler was ‘infamous for using the intricacies of labor law to thwart organizing and, if unions win elections, to delay the bargaining indefinitely.’”
It’s not hard to see how closely Starbucks is following Littler Mendelson’s playbook, joined by Amazon and Apple and Trader Joe’s and more, with whichever expensive lawyers and consultants they’re listening to. And it’s workers who suffer.