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Starbucks Seattle Roastery on Pike Street

As Starbucks closes stores, Seattle workers claim union-busting

Worker strikes, store closures, and contested elections. Those aren’t the headlines you would have expected concerning American coffee giant Starbucks just a year ago. But now union efforts are intensifying at Starbucks locations across the country. KUOW’s Kim Malcolm reviewed the turmoil with Paige Browning.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kim Malcolm: We’ve heard allegations from baristas and other staff members that Starbucks is refusing to go to the bargaining table. What is their basis for this allegation?

Paige Browning: Starbucks is refusing to bargain at one store at least, the crown jewel of the company, the Seattle Roastery. Starbucks filed paperwork with federal labor officials, saying they're refusing to start negotiations with this store because they don't believe the union election there was properly conducted. The company says it should have been an in-person vote. The store voted electronically. Starbucks says doing it in person would have had a higher voter turnout. Due to this, they're refusing to start a contract.

Can the company legally do this?

Starbucks has the right to challenge the vote. That's what they're doing. They're following a process laid out by the National Labor Relations Board. But the union, Starbucks Workers United, says this delay smells of union busting. They say you can't bargain in good faith if you're not at the table. Starbucks has not done this elsewhere that we know of. But it does plan to close some stores elsewhere. It's closing 16 stores this month, saying that the reason is the inability to keep those stores safe.

How are workers and customers taking this news that the 16 stores are closing?

Starbucks will tell you it's all about safety. But a lot of workers are second-guessing that, as are customers who frequent the shops. They say it seems to be more about squashing union activity. About one-third of the stores that are about to close are involved in union efforts. This is what piqued the curiosity of a lot of workers and customers. These are busy spots, including one on 23rd and Jackson in Seattle, and the beloved “Gaybucks,” as the kids call it, on Capitol Hill. People are very curious about whether safety is the real reason.

There was a video last week from CEO Howard Schultz where he said this is just the beginning, and there are going to be many more.

Yes, that video did circulate, but today a Starbucks person told me, “We have no further plans to announce closures at this time.” That's the official company line. But these 16 stores, or the workers at them, are not going down without a fight. Starbucks union organizers have filed a federal labor complaint that claims Starbucks is targeting stores that recently organized.

Workers have gone on strike in about a dozen U.S. cities this month, including one of our premier Starbucks stores, the Roastery on Capitol Hill. That one turned into quite a scene this past weekend when workers held a strike and shut down the store. Other staff from the company served coffee from a cart outside. They're protesting the company's refusal to bargain with them.

Now, there's a movement throughout the nation calling for Schultz and other officials to get to negotiations. You might see some signs outside your local Starbucks store today. They say, “Wanted: Howard Schultz, Alive at the Bargaining Table.” This is all part of a campaign to get negotiations moving.

What do you expect to happen next?

A spokesperson told me that bargaining is taking place at all eligible stores. It does not include the Roastery on that list. Otherwise, we’ll wait to see if labor officials find that allegations of union busting against Starbucks are valid, or find that it needs to redo that election at the Seattle Roastery, which would favor the company, and put off bargaining even longer. The union momentum is still very much speeding up. There are now nearly 200 unionized Starbucks in the U.S.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.