Starbucks accuses US officials of working in concert with union leaders

Starbucks has accused federal labour officials of working with union leaders to sway election results and demanded the government halt all further ballots pending an investigation.

The coffee chain has been the target of one of the most concerted labour-organising campaigns in the fast-food industry since the 1980s, with more than 220 Starbucks stores across the country voting to unionise since December.

Workers say the chain’s stores are understaffed and Starbucks is taking advantage of them for profit. Some 81 per cent of cafés that held elections voted in favour of the union, per the National Labor Relations Board.

But in one of its most forceful interventions, Starbucks said a current employee of the NLRB — the federal agency that oversees collective bargaining in the US — had approached the company with evidence that labour officials in Kansas City shared information about mail-in ballots with the union.

Starbucks detailed the allegations in a 14-page letter sent to the NLRB chair and general counsel on Monday, in which it also demanded that all upcoming union elections be halted pending an investigation. Some 34 stores have elections scheduled or in process, labour officials reported in a data release on Friday. Another seven stores have pending election requests.

Starbucks said that an “NLRB career professional” had turned over emails showing agency officials had given union leaders real-time updates on mail-in ballots as they arrived at NLRB offices. That helped union leaders target workers at the Overland Park store in the Kansas City area who had not already voted, according to the coffee chain.

The NLRB said the agency does not comment on open cases but that it “has well-established processes to raise challenges regarding the handling of both election matters and unfair labour practice cases”.

“The regional staff — and, ultimately, the board — will carefully and objectively consider any challenges raised through these established channels, which include opportunities to seek expedited review,” the NLRB added.

The organising campaign at the coffee chain has been highly contentious, with both sides accusing each other of misconduct.

Starbucks Workers United has filed some 284 complaints of unfair labour practices against the company, accusing it of illegally firing union leaders and closing unionised stores. Several unionised stores went on strike last week, alleging Starbucks excluded them from pay rises given to non-union stores and refused to negotiate an employment contract.

The union said the coffee chain’s allegations were “absurd”.

“Starbucks is simultaneously claiming to stand for voter protections, and then asking that all elections be suspended nationwide,” said Michelle Eisen, a union leader and barista at one of the first Starbucks stores to vote for Workers United last year in Buffalo, New York. “This is hypocrisy at its finest.”

Starbucks said it believed that labour officials did the same in Seattle and Buffalo.

The NLRB has scheduled a hearing to consider Starbucks’ allegations on Tuesday. Workers’ ballots are still being counted.

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