More than Coffee, Starbucks’ NLRB Violations

Written By: Melaina Grewal

Starbucks Corporation is a multinational coffee house chain and a household name in America. With its headquarters in Seattle, Washington, Starbucks employs over 258,000 employees in the U.S. With such an extensive reach and an abundance of employees; understandably, Starbucks is under a microscope when it comes to Labor Relations.


The NLRB is a federal agency that “protects the right of private sector employees to join together, with or without a union, to improve their wages and working conditions” under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRB, on its own, has no power to investigate employers or unions. So, it is crucial that employees feel empowered to come forward to testify at NLRB proceedings or file charges with the NLRB. Because of this need for employees to self-report, Section 8(a)(4) of the NLRA makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees for helping the NLRB do its job.


Earlier this month, an Administrative Law Judge ruled that Starbucks unlawfully impeded a Seattle worker’s ability to testify at an NLRB hearing when subpoenaed. Starbucks’ unlawful behavior consisted of requiring employees to get a co-worker to cover their shift if testifying and stating that failure to do so would result in discipline. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) additionally found that Starbucks violated federal labor laws by telling employees they couldn’t participate in union-related activities on their breaks. The union activity involved an employee who attempted to distribute “union pins” to customers and employees during their mandatory break time. This ruling is one of many that NLRB’s Administrative Law Judges have held Starbucks to have illegally discriminated against its employees for participating in an NLRB proceeding or other union activity.

In the most recent decision, dated June 23, 2023, an Administrative Law Judge for the NLRB held that Starbucks violated federal labor laws again in two ways. First, by disciplining an employee at an Illinois location for responding to a subpoena directing him to appear at an NLRB proceeding. Second, by sending a worker home after she requested a union representative during a possible disciplinary meeting. The Judge found that (1) under the National Labor Relations Act, it is an unfair labor practice to discriminate against an employee for cooperating in a Board proceeding by giving testimony and (2) under the US Supreme Court’s ruling in NLRB v. J. Weingarten, Inc., an employee is entitled to request “union representation at investigatory interviews which the employee reasonably believes may result in discipline.”


Since 2021, approximately 330 unfair labor practice charges have been filed with the NLRB against Starbucks. This is likely because of the rise in Starbucks Stores seeking to unionize since 2021, when workers from a Starbucks store in Buffalo, NY, voted to form the first Starbucks U.S. union. Most remedies in these cases are cease-and-desist orders from Administrative Law Judges, requiring Starbucks to stop its unlawful behavior immediately. These orders can be appealed to the NLRB, and the NLRB’s ruling can be challenged in federal court. Because most of these cease-and-desist orders are “local,” there have still been reoccurring violations by Starbucks in other parts of the country. Months ago, a Michigan Federal Judge issued a nationwide cease-and-desist order to address this issue; however, this order was later vacated and would only apply to one local store in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Because the violations span throughout the country, it is unclear whether a court will eventually impose a nationwide cease-and-desist order. With lower union representation for the restaurant industry in general, the decisions that follow, and whether a national cease and desist order is issued, present an interesting issue for workers and corporations to follow.


29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(4)

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