Starbucks loses bid to block union elections at 3 N.Y. stores

Josh Eidelson

Starbucks employees at three restaurants near Buffalo, New York, will consider joining a union after the U.S. government mailed them ballots, defeating the company's efforts to prevent organizing elections.

A union victory in any of the votes would create the first such labor foothold among the Seattle-based coffee chain's thousands of corporate-run locations.

The mailing, which began Wednesday, was a setback for Starbucks, which on Monday asked National Labor Relations Board members in Washington, D.C., to keep the agency's Buffalo office from distributing ballots. Starbucks also had asked the board to overrule an acting regional director's ruling that green-lit store-by-store elections at three sites where workers petitioned to form a union. Starbucks has argued that any vote should involve at least all 20 of the region's stores, meaning that the union, Workers United, would win only if it secured a majority of votes from the much larger group.

The company had argued that the director's Oct. 28 ruling was contrary to labor law and would result in "disenfranchisement" by denying employees throughout the region the chance "to vote together on this important issue of union representation." The official had ruled that Starbucks "failed to sustain its burden" to overcome the NLRB's usual presumption that employees at a single worksite can be an appropriate group to vote on unionization. She cited the distance between Starbucks locations, variations in working conditions, and local stores' autonomy on day-to-day operations.

Three of the board's five members are now Democrats with union backgrounds, after appointments this year by President Joe Biden. While the board members didn't halt the mailing of ballots, under agency rules the votes won't be counted until the board members have considered Starbucks' claims that store-by-store votes are inappropriate. That process could postpone the opening of ballots until weeks after the Dec. 8 deadline for the agency to receive them.

New petitions for elections at three more Buffalo-area stores filed Tuesday by the union are also pending before the agency, as is a complaint the group filed accusing Starbucks of illegal anti-union tactics. Starbucks has said it strictly adheres to U.S. labor laws.

Starbucks shares fell 1.2% at 10:35 a.m. in New York. They gained 5.9% this year through Wednesday's close, trailing a 24% increase in the S&P 500.