Wren Raggio had been working at the Starbucks at Pioneer Courthouse Square for nearly ten months when she stepped up to serve as an observer during the location’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union election in early March.
It was a proud day for Raggio and her fellow workers, who voted overwhelmingly to unionize their store. Then, not two weeks later, Raggio was fired—purportedly for violating the company’s time and attendance policy. She and her colleagues were skeptical.
“In the hundreds of days I worked at Starbucks, I was fired for a handful of instances of being late—most of which were less than five minutes,” Raggio said. “I would have called ahead if it’d been more than that.”
Maddy Broom, Raggio’s former co-worker at the Pioneer Square location, said the enforcement of time and attendance violations varies significantly depending on the worker and is one of the company’s favored covers for dismissing union organizers.
“Our system does not flag people if they’re less than five minutes late,” Broom said. “Wren was less than five minutes late. So that means your manager is manually going in and looking at when people clock in and then writing that down so they can perform write-ups. Not everyone on our team has this enforced equally.”
It’s not a unique story. In the year-plus since the first Starbucks store filed for a union election in Buffalo, the company has racked up NLRB violations for anti-union activities surveilling and threatening employees, attempting to ban them from discussing unionization at work, and even closing a unionized location.
Last month, Starbucks was ordered to reinstate seven workers fired for their union activity in Buffalo, in an order from a federal labor judge who found the company had engaged in “egregious and widespread misconduct” in its effort to quash the unionization movement.
In a statement to the Mercury, a Starbucks spokesperson claimed that the company has not violated the law.
“In many of these proceedings, the NLRB is attempting to use cases against Starbucks to change existing labor law — not because Starbucks is failing to comply with the law as it exists today,” the spokesperson wrote.
The company’s anti-union activity was thrust into the national spotlight last week when former CEO Howard Schultz was grilled in a much-publicized Senate hearing led by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Just days after Schultz’s testimony, Starbucks fired one of the original union organizers in Buffalo—again, purportedly, for tardiness.
But despite the NLRB violations and the negative press, some observers believe that Starbucks’ unstinting anti-union strategy is beginning to pay off.
In November, Slate reported that just eight Starbucks locations filed for a union election last August, down from 71 last March. The union’s success rate in NLRB elections, meanwhile, fell from 90 percent in the early part of 2022 to just 74 percent that summer with the anti-union campaign in full swing. The rate of unionization has not picked up substantially since.
“It’s an issue of fatigue,” Marc Rodriguez, a professor of history at Portland State University who studies labor, said, noting that Starbucks’ decision to illegally raise wages and add benefits for employees at non-union locations has served as a disincentive for workers thinking about organizing.
The NLRB has sought to keep up as complaints about Starbucks’ anti-union tactics have piled up, but the agency is facing significant hurdles: it hasn’t received a funding increase since 2014 and has had its workforce cut by 40 percent since 2014, even as a new surge of labor activity since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched demand for its services.
Even when the NLRB does hand down findings against Starbucks, its power to levy penalties against the company is limited. Companies cannot be fined for anti-union activities, and at the most are forced to give back pay to workers illegally fired for organizing.
Passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act through Congress would change that, but opposition from Republicans and a handful of Democrats has stalled the bill’s progress. All the while, the NLRB process takes a disproportionate toll on worker and union resources.
“By the time some of these decisions are made by the NLRB—and they’re often in favor of the workers, by the way—they come a year later,” Rodriguez said. “It takes a long time for those decisions to come down, and so I think that’s one of the issues that lawyers for companies are very aware of: they can just wait this out.”
For a company like Starbucks that seems to view unionization as a major threat to its profit margin, the NLRB violations are a small price to pay for actions that have been proven to harm unionization efforts.
In their effort to unionize the Pioneer Square location, Broom and Raggio saw the chilling effect of the company’s anti-union stance firsthand.
“We’ve had that heightened scrutiny, and it creates a sense of fear,” Broom said. “That’s something that we really had to combat at our store. One of the biggest hurdles to unionizing our store was to convince people that they were allowed to talk about the union at work, because management was telling them the opposite.”Broom said they were told they weren’t allowed to wear a Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) suit on the floor, while a shift supervisor was told she couldn’t wear a union pin at work.
The Pioneer Square location ultimately voted to unionize, but given Starbucks’ apparent intent on slowing the pace of contract negotiations with SBWU, it’s unclear when they will receive their first union contract. To Broom, who said they are currently working less than full time, making just $15.75 per hour–a dollar above Portland’s minimum wage–before tips, it’s another tactic to exhaust workers and slow the union’s momentum.
“Starbucks’ current plan is… that if they treat us poorly enough, that we will all look for employment elsewhere,” Broom said. “I think they’re hoping that they can just wait out organizers.”
The antidote, Broom said, is people like Raggio who have continued to work on the unionization campaign after being fired as well as the workers who have fought for—and in several cases won—reinstatement.
Locally, organizers have reason to be optimistic. The rate of unionization has not slowed in the Portland area to the same extent that it has slowed nationally, with six Portland stores participating in a one-day strike in late March to protest the corporation’s anti-union activity.
According to the Portland chapter of SBWU, there are currently 16 unionized Starbucks locations in Portland and 25 in the state of Oregon as a whole—with the Portland State University Urban Center location awaiting a date for its NLRB election. Raggio sees that as reason for optimism.
“They want to curb people talking about [the union],” Raggio said. “But just through creating such a bad atmosphere, people are going to want change.”