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Starbucks ex-manager says he was told to punish pro-union employees

Oct. 11, 2022 Updated Tue., Oct. 11, 2022 at 8:51 p.m.

Picket signs are shown at a Seattle rally Jan. 25 in support of workers of two Seattle Starbucks locations that announced plans to unionize.  (Getty Images)
Picket signs are shown at a Seattle rally Jan. 25 in support of workers of two Seattle Starbucks locations that announced plans to unionize. (Getty Images)
Byu Josh Eidelson Bloomberg News

A former Starbucks Corp. store manager in New York said he was instructed to single out and discipline pro-union employees for unrelated reasons, such as wearing purple pants.

David Almond, who managed a series of Buffalo, New York-area cafes, testified under oath to a National Labor Relations Board judge in August that Starbucks higher-ups listed names of employees the company had determined supported the union, and told him to punish them. The transcript of Almond’s testimony was obtained by Bloomberg through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Almond said the list was read to him by a manager the company had deployed to his store, as a rundown of employees there with pro-union sentiments. Other managers later ran through the same list with Almond and suggested ways to penalize the employees in ways that were not related to the union, he said.

In one case, a district manager asked him whether a particular person on the list had committed any past infractions. When Almond responded that this person was a great employee, his superior told him to come up with something.

“She said go through her files,” Almond said, according to the transcript. “She’s a long-term partner. I’m sure there’s something in there we can use against her.”

U.S. labor board prosecutors have accused Starbucks of illegally trying to stifle the union campaign sweeping through its stores – about 250 of its 9,000 corporate-run U.S. stores have voted to unionize as of last week, the NLRB said. Starbucks Workers United has filed labor board claims accusing the company of illegally terminating more than 80 of its supporters, including a prominent activist in the Buffalo region recently fired for refusing to remove a suicide awareness pin.

The NLRB’s general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, has issued dozens of pending complaints against Starbucks around the country, including one involving hundreds of allegations of union-busting in the Buffalo region, where organizers notched the first of their hundreds of successful unionization votes over the past year.

In the Buffalo hearing this August, Almond also testified that someone from Starbucks corporate told him to follow around an employee who appeared to be holding a union poster, and that a district manager told him to start ensuring there was always a manager present at the store, because that would discourage union chatter.

“She said, this way, the partners won’t feel comfortable talking about the union, and if they do, then you should discourage them,” Almond said. “She made me rewrite all the schedules so that there was a manager on from open all the way till close.” (Starbucks refers to its store employees as “partners.”)

Starbucks has denied wrongdoing, and a spokesperson said Monday in an email statement that to the company’s knowledge, Almond was not directed by anyone to target or surveil employees. “We respect the right of all partners to make their decisions regarding union issues, whether they favor or oppose representation,” the company said.

At the hearing, Starbucks’ attorney, Jacqueline Phipps Polito, told the judge that disciplinary actions were “taken very carefully,” and resulted from policy violations that employees themselves admitted to. She also said union organizers were publicizing workers’ firings “to further galvanize support for the union locally and nationally.”

Phipps Polito accused the NLRB’s general counsel of using the case to try to establish new labor law precedents, “on the back of one of the most progressive companies in this country, that clearly offers its partners a wide array of substantial benefits like no other company.”

The labor board’s Buffalo complaint accuses Starbucks of targeting, firing, threatening and carrying out surveillance on numerous pro-union employees in the Buffalo region. At the start of the hearing, a government attorney accused the company of deploying “an iron fist to try and nip this campaign in the bud.”

Agency judges’ rulings on such complaints can be appealed to the labor board members in Washington, and from there into federal court.

Almond testified that he resigned from Starbucks in January, and informed employees he was doing so because of the company’s anti-union campaign.

“I didn’t want to do illegal stuff,” he told the judge. “I’ve worked my entire life to build up a career of integrity, and I was not going to allow Starbucks to take that from me.”

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