Starbucks Labor Controversy Sparks Discussion About Unionizing and Company Reputation

In the Fall of 2021, Starbucks Workers United made claims against Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y., that accused the company of interfering with employees working to unionize. Consequently, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Buffalo filed a complaint accusing the company of 29 unfair labor practice charges. The charges included over 200 violations of the National Labor Relations Act. According to the NLRB’s complaint, Starbucks is accused of threatening workers by closing stores in the area, reducing worker’s compensation and holding mandatory anti-union meetings with high-level executives in attendance, among other alleged violations. 

The company issued a statement that the complaints addressed “important issues,” but that they held no merit. In response, Starbucks Workers United stated that, “Starbucks will be held accountable for the union-busting minefield they forced workers to walk through in fighting for their right to organize. This Complaint fully unmasks Starbucks’ facade as a ‘progressive company’ and exposes the truth of Howard Schultz’s anti-union war.”   

A Long History

More than fifty stores have voted to join Workers United since the organization launched last year. Out of the 9,000 Starbucks locations in the country, 250 have petitioned to conduct a vote. So far, five have voted no. 

Robert Josephson, corporate affairs leader and crisis communications counselor at FTI Consulting, asserts that throughout history companies have learned to work with organized labor. He specifically alludes to the automotive industry. 

In the 1930’s, The United Auto Workers union staged a sit-down of 136,000 General Motor employees. Employees lived inside of their workplace for 44 days and the conflict was eventually mediated by former Michigan Gov. Frank Murphy. Now named "the strike heard around the world," the demonstration in Flint caused General Motors to consider the rights of the workers. 

“While there have certainly been battles, because of that long history, there appears to be a respectful relationship.” says Josephson. “In many cases, there is a rhythm and a transparency in which companies and labor know what to expect from each other.” 

On the other hand, Josephson attributes many companies’ resistance to unionization to a variety of factors. These include a desire to maintain direct relationships with employees, ability to make organizational changes quickly, merit increases and other benefit changes.

Says Josephson, “The perception may be that a union may interfere in the operations of the organization, and the company cannot make changes as efficiently or be as agile as they need to be to meet their employees’ needs.” 

Reputation With the Public

It is difficult to find an industry not impacted by a labor dispute of some kind, according to Josephson. Labor disagreements have been prominent for generations. 

The most prominent example in recent years is Chris Smalls establishing Amazon’s first labor union in partnership with Derrick Palmer. It is considered by many to be one of the most significant labor victories in a generation. 

“I think the public understands this,” says Josephson. “It is also the case that investors, employees and the public often expect a certain amount of back and forth and tension between companies and unions in some industries.”

The most damaging thing for a company's reputation is if they don’t treat their employees well. Employees desire to “feel valued” by their company and want their contributions to the company to be “recognized and awarded appropriately.” 

“Genuine empathy from leadership, now more than ever, is critical when addressing employee concerns,” says Josephson. “When companies have a poor track record on addressing concerns, not listening or even being dismissive, that is what becomes a reputational challenge and where employees seek answers elsewhere, like from a union.” 

Bridging the Gap

From Josephson’s perspective, companies generally respect their employees rights for a union and want an open, fair process. Ultimately, it is up to the company's employees to make a decision if unionization is in their best interest. He suggests ensuring both sides, the company at large and the employees, are heard. 

Communicators can also play a crucial role in establishing healthy relationships between executives and employees. According to Josephson, communications professionals now have a greater ability to work with CEOs and the broader C-suite. 

“They can use these relationships and help lead and guide real change across the organization particularly when workplace issues are being identified,” says Josephson. “They are often in an influential position in terms of speaking up and advocating for change.” 


Andrew Byrd is a Media Associate at PRNEWS.