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Workers at the Starbucks on the Capitol Square voted overwhelmingly for a union in June. Less than two weeks later, in the county's second Starbucks election, workers at a Fitchburg Starbucks overwhelmingly voted against unionizing.

In Dane County’s second Starbucks union election, workers at a Fitchburg store have voted overwhelmingly against a union. 

The ballots, counted Monday afternoon by staff of the National Labor Relations Board’s Milwaukee office, showed 21 votes against the union and a single vote in favor, a sharp contrast to the 15:1 union victory at the downtown Madison Starbucks less than two weeks ago. 

One ballot was challenged but was not opened or counted Monday, as it would not change the outcome. Members of the media and representatives of both parties were permitted to observe the count via Zoom. The ballots cast represent 23 of the roughly 33 workers who were eligible to vote between mid-June and early July.

The results come just over a week after the vote tally for the downtown Madison Starbucks (1 E. Main St.), the first local Starbucks to file a union petition and the first unionized Starbucks in Dane County.

The Monday count marks the first Starbucks election for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), which represents thousands of grocery workers in Wisconsin and upper Michigan. 

Starbucks employees have been filing union petitions and voting to unionize at headline-grabbing speed since last August, when workers at two stores in New York filed union petitions. To date, at least 299 of the coffee chain’s locations have filed to unionize, according to the National Labor Relations Board. As of July 11, elections had been tallied in 231 stores, with 81% voting to unionize. Election results have been certified in 155 stores, granting union status to more than 3,400 employees. 

Nearly all of those stores have unionized with Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union, but three stores in Dane County — in Fitchburg, Monona and in Madison on University Avenue — opted to organize with UFCW instead. 

Workers at the Starbucks at 6512 Monona Drive were previously scheduled for a vote count on Monday as well, but they withdrew their union petition in June, canceling the election. Workers at the store at 3515 University Ave., meanwhile, are waiting for the NLRB to investigate union allegations that Starbucks illegally targeted and retaliated against employees for unionizing. 

"The majority of partners at this store voted to keep our direct relationship,” a Starbucks spokesperson whose email signature said Abbey – but who would not provide their name – said in an email Tuesday. The company regularly refers to its employees as “partners.” 

“This is a resounding vote of confidence in moving forward and continuing to partner directly with Starbucks.” 

In an emailed statement, UFCW Local 1473 president Jake Bailey said the union is “deeply disappointed” in the election result. 

“However, it is not surprising given the vicious anti-union program that these workers were subjected to and the unfair, illegal termination of our active organizing committee at a neighboring store,” Bailey said, referencing the union’s claims that workers at the University Avenue store were fired for organizing. 

“These Starbucks workers here in Wisconsin, like many others across the country, have faced relentless interrogations, demeaning threats about being stripped of their benefits, and countless hours of falsehoods from the anti-worker consultants that Starbucks has hired to spearhead their union-busting campaign. UFCW local 1473 will exhaust all legal options in defense of these Starbucks workers who just wish to have a voice on the job.”

The Starbucks spokesperson called allegations of unfair labor practices “categorically false.” 

“We have fully honored the process laid out by the NLRB and encouraged our partners to exercise their right to vote in the election to have their voices heard,” the spokesperson said.

Hearing begins on allegations of unfair labor practices

Monday also marked the first day of hearings in an administrative law hearing to determine whether Starbucks engaged in unfair labor practices in its Buffalo, New York, stores. The hearing was prompted by an amended complaint issued in June by the regional director of the NLRB, listing more than 200 allegations of unfair labor practices against the company, including that the company illegally fired employees for supporting union efforts and that it illegally promised benefits to employees if they would refrain from union activity.

The hearings, which are taking place in United States District Court for the Western District of New York in Buffalo, will take place daily and could last several weeks. 

In May, the company came under additional scrutiny for what some union advocates saw as another union-busting effort. During an earnings call with investors, Starbucks interim CEO Howard Schultz announced that the company would offer enhanced benefits including “student loan refinancing, additional skills recognition programs, enhanced in-app tipping and new profit-sharing initiatives.” Those benefits, he said, would be available only to employees at only those stores that have not voted to unionize and do not have pending union election petitions, trade publication Restaurant Dive reported.

“We do not have the same freedom to make these improvements at locations that have a union or where union organizing is underway,” Schultz said. “Federal law prohibits us from promising new wages and benefits at stores involved in union organizing. And by law, we cannot implement unilateral changes at stores that have a union.”

While the National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from promising benefits to discourage workers from supporting a union, labor law experts told Restaurant Dive that because Starbucks’ intent is unclear, the move falls in a “legal gray area.” Some said the action would effectively, and perhaps illegally, discourage workers from unionizing, while others said Starbucks was within its rights to make such an announcement.

In response to questions about these allegations a Starbucks spokesperson said that when bargaining with a union, the company “can’t predict the outcome of negotiations” and “can’t promise what we can’t promise.”

Asked whether Starbucks planned to bring those same offers of benefits to the bargaining table at unionized stores, the spokesperson said only that the company would “bargain in good faith.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Starbucks and the UFCW, which were received after publication.

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