Workers at Atlanta’s newly unionized Starbucks stores at Ansley Mall and Howell Mill have received only silence from Starbucks over a date for bargaining their first contracts–and so have 17 other stores in the South that have voted to join Starbucks Workers United (SBWU).

After sustained pressure from the over 250 U.S. stores that have unionized since last December, the coffee giant announced in late September that it would negotiate contracts individually with each one, setting a three-week window in October.

But the 19 Southern stores, including Atlanta’s Ansley Mall and Howell Mill locations, that have asked Starbucks for contract talks have only received form letters saying the company will be in touch to set up a date and time, according to Camden Mitchell, SBWU’s lead organizer for the South. (An additional Starbucks store in Alabama just received union certification from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week.)

What’s more, Starbucks has walked out on negotiations with at least 22 Starbucks stores that it has actually met with as soon as the workers looped in SBWU representatives on video calls to assist in negotiations. Starbucks claims that violates NLRB negotiating rules against recordings and transcriptions.

The NLRB prohibits a party from making a recording or transcript of a negotiating session to preserve confidentiality, but Starbucks doesn’t claim that a Zoom call in real-time is a violation.

SBWU tried to set a single national contract negotiation with Starbucks,  so it could collectively represent all the stores in the union, Mitchell said, but Starbucks refused, saying it would only negotiate individually with each store’s workers. SBWU represents the majority of the unionized stores.

Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment from Al ilmu.

Newly unionized shops have one year from when they gain NLRB certification to win a contract from management. Otherwise, employees in that shop can call a decertification vote to exit the union.

The Howell Mill and Ansley Mall stores, which unionized in June, both staged one-day strikes in July and September, respectively, to push Starbucks to negotiate a contract. They joined a national wave of direct actions by newly unionized Starbucks stores to bring management to the table.

Clash over bargaining rules 

Starbucks finally started contract negotiations with at least 22 stores the last week in October. But the talks quickly stalled when Starbucks representatives walked out of meetings scheduled for several hours after only about five minutes, according to several stores that made it to the negotiating table. Both sides say the impasse stems from a disagreement over the rules of the bargaining sessions.

“What we've seen so far is Starbucks not accepting the hybrid mode of bargaining we are setting up,” SBWU’s Mitchell said.

Because Starbucks will only negotiate store by store, each store’s workers have been connecting national SBWU union representatives via video calls for each bargaining session. According to Mitchell, these SBWU representatives are there to observe, help keep demands consistent, and keep negotiations fair.

A Twitter thread has gone viral detailing the negotiations from the unionized stores’ perspective. Participants claim that Starbucks representatives frequently arrive late and, after only a few minutes of discussions, leave the room as soon as the workers introduce the video call with the national SBWU negotiators. Then they confer among themselves for the remainder of the scheduled session.

But Starbucks said in an Oct 24th statement that its corporate representatives have been leaving the negotiations because the unionized workers are broadcasting the session to “individuals not present.”  Starbucks posted the statement on a website, One.Starbucks.com, that it created to address union activity.

“Broadcasting or recording these in-person sessions is deeply concerning and undermines the interests of our partners, because negotiations may warrant the discussion of individuals by name and are likely to address a range of sensitive topics,” according to Starbucks’ statement.

Starbucks claims in the statement that its representatives exit the room and remain outside for the rest of the agreed-upon time solely due to the Zoom calls. It says they would return to the negotiating table if each of the unionized shops limited itself to individuals attending in person.

According to SBWU’s Mitchell, the hybrid Zoom and in-person approach is a concession from the union. It had established a National Bargaining Committee to negotiate directly with Starbucks on behalf of all the unionized stores, before the coffee giant said in late September it would only negotiate with them individually.

Starbucks has previously agreed to this hybrid model with other unionized Starbucks stores, and used it to negotiate with several stores, including some in New York state in June, he added, noting that no stores have won a contract yet.

An SBWU national field organizer, Daisy Pitkin, told Labor Notes in August that the union’s national committee had drafted a set of unified bargaining demands and that it wanted to meet with Starbucks in person to collectively represent the SBWU stores.

“I’m assuming they’re going to say no,” Pitkin said then. “They want to bargain store by store. So workers are planning to coordinate with each other and put forward the same proposal over and over.”

Starbucks claimed in a Nov. 1 letter to SBWU posted at One.Starbucks.com that the union “did not seek or obtain any right to represent any Starbucks partner at any Starbucks store on a ‘national basis’.”

The clock is ticking

The clock is starting to run out on contract negotiations as the one-year anniversary approaches for the first Starbucks stores that have won union elections.

Mitchell and other SBWU union representatives anticipate that Starbucks will stall negotiations store-by-store until the one-year contract deadline for each–and then push for decertification elections around the country.

Legally, it’s murky for the NLRB to decide whether the bargaining process is going forward in “good faith” when both sides claim the other side is not doing so. The NLRB doesn’t get involved in union contract negotiations unless one side files unfair labor practice charges, according to the federal agency’s press secretary, Kayla Blado.

Starbucks claimed on Oct. 28 that it had filed 22 unfair labor practice charges against the union for not bargaining in good faith. SBWU has filed similar charges with the NLRB against Starbucks, Mitchell said.

It’s not clear at this point whether or when the NLRB will intervene to referee the disputed procedures for contract negotiations. However, the NLRB could play a role at the one-year mark, Mitchell said, because it has the power to extend the decertification window beyond the one-year mark.

“We’re confident of that, should [Starbucks] try to run the decertification campaign,” he said. “As long as there are [unfair labor practice charges] and as long as they aren’t bargaining in good faith, the NLRB can push the window back.”

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