Federal labor regulators accused Starbucks on Wednesday of illegally closing 23 stores to suppress organizing activity and sought to force the company to reopen them.
A complaint issued by a regional office of the National Labor Relations Board argued that Starbucks had closed the stores because its employees engaged in union activities or to discourage employees from doing so. At least seven of the 23 stores identified had unionized.
The agency’s move is the latest in a series of accusations by federal officials that Starbucks has broken the law during a two-year labor campaign.
The case is scheduled to go before an administrative judge next summer unless Starbucks settles it earlier. In addition to asking the judge to order the stores reopened, the complaint wants employees to be compensated for the loss of earnings or benefits and for other costs they incurred as a result of the closures.
“This complaint is the latest confirmation of Starbucks’ determination to illegally oppose workers’ organizing,” Mari Cosgrove, a Starbucks employee, said in a statement issued through a spokesperson for the union, Workers United.
A Starbucks spokesman said, “Each year as a standard course of business, we evaluate the store portfolio” and typically open, close or alter stores. The company said it opened hundreds of new stores last year and closed more than 100, of which about 3 percent were unionized.
The union campaign began in 2021 in the Buffalo, N.Y., area, where two stores unionized that December, before spreading across the country. More than 350 of the company’s roughly 9,300 corporate-owned locations have unionized.
The labor board has issued more than 100 complaints covering hundreds of accusations of illegal behavior by Starbucks, including threats or retaliation against workers involved in union activity and a failure to bargain in good faith. Administrative judges have ruled against the company on more than 30 occasions, though the company has appealed those decisions to the full labor board in Washington. Judges have dismissed fewer than five of the complaints.
None of the unionized stores have negotiated a labor contract with the company, and bargaining has largely stalled. Last week, Starbucks wrote to Workers United saying it wanted to resume negotiations.
According to Wednesday’s complaint, Starbucks managers announced the closing of 16 stores in July 2022, then announced several more closures over the next few months.
An administrative judge previously ruled that Starbucks had illegally closed a unionized store in Ithaca, N.Y., and ordered workers reinstated with back pay, but the company has appealed that decision.
The new complaint was issued on the same day that Starbucks released a nonconfidential version of an outside assessment of whether its practices align with its stated commitment to labor rights. The company’s shareholders had voted to back the assessment in a nonbinding vote whose results were announced in March.
The author of the report, Thomas M. Mackall, a former management-side lawyer and labor relations official at the food and facilities management company Sodexo, wrote that he “found no evidence of an ‘anti-union playbook’ or instructions or training about how to violate U.S. laws.”
But Mr. Mackall concluded that Starbucks officials involved in responding to the union campaign did not appear to understand how the company’s Global Human Rights Statement might constrain their response. The rights statement commits Starbucks to respecting employees’ freedom of association and participation in collective bargaining.
Mr. Mackall cited managers’ “allegedly unlawful promises and threats” and “allegedly discriminatory or retaliatory discipline and discharge” as areas where Starbucks could improve.
In a letter tied to the report’s release, the chair of the company’s board and an independent director said the assessment was clear that “Starbucks has had no intention to deviate from the principles of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.” At the same time, the letter added, “there are things the company can, and should, do to improve its stated commitments and its adherence to these important principles.”