Buffalo Starbucks Workers Vote for Union at 1 Store, Against at Another

on Dec9
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Workers at one Buffalo-area Starbucks store have voted to form a union, according to results announced by the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday.

Workers at a second store in the area voted against unionizing, according to the board, though a union lawyer contended that some ballots had been delivered to the agency and not counted.

The victory at the one store represents a challenge to the labor model at the giant coffee retailer. None of Starbucks’s nearly 9,000 company-owned stores in the United States were unionized before the vote. Votes at one more Buffalo-area store will be counted later on Thursday.

Workers cited frustration over understaffing and insufficient training when they filed for union elections at the stores in late August, problems that have dogged the company for years but which appeared to worsen during the pandemic.

Former National Labor Relations Board officials have said that these actions by the company could be interpreted as undermining the “laboratory conditions” that are supposed to prevail during union elections and that they could serve as grounds for throwing out the results. A regional director of the labor board recently overturned a union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama on similar grounds.

The former labor board officials also said that “packing” a store by hiring or transferring additional workers into it could be deemed unlawful if the additional workers did not appear to serve a legitimate business purpose and were likely to oppose the union.

Starbucks has said that it dispatched out-of-town officials and temporarily closed stores to help solve staffing and training problems and to remodel stores to make them more efficient. The company said that it added staff to deal with an increase in the number of workers calling in sick and that it has taken such steps across the country since the spring, when coronavirus infection rates dropped and stores became busier.

Rossann Williams, the North America president, said in an interview on Wednesday from Buffalo that she did not feel that the run-up to the vote had been especially contentious and that she had spent much of her time there this fall listening to employees, who the company refers to as partners, and addressing “the conditions that partners had pointed out.”

The company said it did not believe any of its actions would prompt the labor board to throw out the results of the elections.

Starbucks has also argued that workers at its roughly 20 stores in the Buffalo area should vote together in a single election, rather than the separate elections that the labor board ordered in late October. The company said that allowing individual stores to decide whether to unionize is problematic because employees can work at multiple locations and because the stores are largely managed as a group. A single, larger election typically favors the employer.

Starbucks filed an appeal to the National Labor Relations Board in Washington seeking to block the elections on these grounds. The board denied its request for a review of the case on Tuesday.

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