Starbucks files NLRB complaint against union over Pride decor

Starbucks fired back Monday at the union that represents baristas at hundreds of its stores, filing charges with the National Labor Relations Board over Starbucks Workers United’s allegations that dozens of its stores were not allowed to put up Pride month decor.

The charges come after employees of some Starbucks locations started picketing Friday in response to the claims. More than 150 stores pledged to join the strikes around the country, representing nearly 3,500 workers, Workers United said. Starbucks has more than 9,000 company-owned cafes in the U.S.

The union has alleged instances in at least 22 states where managers have told baristas they can’t decorate for Pride month in June, or where Pride flags were taken down. The company has said it has not changed its policies on decorations.

In the NLRB complaint Monday tied to the union’s allegations, Starbucks said the “union and its agents have engaged in a smear campaign that includes deliberate misrepresentations to Starbucks partners.”

“The union’s violations have ignited and inflamed workplace tension and division and provoked strikes and other business disruptions in Starbucks stores,” Starbucks said in the filing. “The union’s unlawful campaign includes, without limitation, making deliberate misrepresentations that include maliciously and recklessly false statements about Starbucks’ longstanding support of Pride month and decorations in its stores. The union has knowingly and falsely stated that Starbucks has banned all Pride decorations from its stores.”

In a second filing with the NLRB responding to the union’s depiction of benefits for LGBTQ+ workers, the coffee giant said, “Starbucks continues to provide its partners with industry‐leading gender affirming care benefits. The union has knowingly and falsely stated that Starbucks eliminated or changed the benefits coverage for its LGBTQIA2+ partners.”

The union said it filed a charge of its own in response to the allegations that stores were barred from decorating. It said some of the strikes were tied to those accusations along with its claims that Starbucks is stalling in labor negotiations.

The first Starbucks location unionized in December 2021, and more than 300 stores so far have voted in favor of a union. But the sides have not agreed to a contract at any store. For its part, Starbucks maintains Workers United has responded to only a quarter of the more than 450 bargaining sessions Starbucks has proposed for individual stores nationally, and said it is committed to progressing negotiations toward a first contract.

The union has said Starbucks is stalling contract negotiations. On Friday, it said, “despite having our non-economic proposals for over 8 months and our economic proposals for over a month now, Starbucks has failed to tentatively agree to a single line of a single proposal or provide a single counter proposal.”

Starbucks Workers United’s latest NLRB filing alleges Starbucks “failed to bargain in good faith” by without notice “eliminating” or “prohibiting” Pride decorations at organized Oklahoma City stores and “refusing to bargain” with the union over the move and its effects. It also said the company refused to “furnish information relevant to bargaining over” the alleged moves to prevent employees from putting up decorations.

Workers United said it was confident the charges Starbucks filed would be dismissed and called them a “public relations stunt meant to distract from Starbucks’ own actions.”

“Every single charge that Starbucks has filed against our union has been dismissed by the NLRB for lacking merit. … Watch what Starbucks does, not what it says,” the union said in a statement.

“While attacking the union that represents its own workers, Starbucks has now changed its policies in response to worker actions. If Starbucks truly wants to be an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community, they will actually listen to their queer workers by coming to the bargaining table to negotiate in good faith,” Starbucks Workers United added.

Starbucks took additional steps Monday to communicate to employees that its policies on decor in stores had not changed. Managers are given safety and security guidelines and can make decisions within that framework.

Starbucks says it has and continues to encourage stores to celebrate heritage months with partners, including Pride.

“I want to reiterate that there has been no change to any of our policies as it relates to our inclusive store environments, our company culture, and the benefits we offer our partners. To further underscore this, we intend to issue clearer centralized guidelines, and leveraging resources like the Period Planning Kit (PPK) and Siren’s Eye, for in-store visual displays and decorations that will continue to represent inclusivity and our brand,” Sara Trilling, executive vice president of Starbucks North America, said in a message to partners sent Monday. “No one can take away our legacy and our continued commitment to being a place where we all belong.”

“Throughout our journey, we have heard from our partners that you want to be creative in how our stores are represented and that you see visual creativity in stores as part of who we are and our culture,” Trilling said. “Equally, we have also heard through our partner channels that there is a need for clarity and consistency on current guidelines around visual displays and decorations.”

In response to Trilling’s message, Alisha Humphrey, national worker leader from Oklahoma City, said in a statement to CNBC, “We are glad that Starbucks is folding in response to our nationwide strike, and we view this as a major victory in our fight to hold Starbucks accountable.”

“However, at my store, there was a clear policy change when we were told that pride decorations were not allowed and I am tired of being gaslight by this company. Moreover, our strike is about more than pride decorations,” Humphrey added. “This strike is about the fact that me and my co-workers voted for a union and, despite Starbucks being legally required to bargain with us, they have refused to do so. This is about Starbucks threatening benefits, intimidating us, and making us feel unwelcome in our own workplace. Our union isn’t damaging Starbucks’ legacy — Starbucks is doing that all by themselves.” 

The clash over Pride decorations in Starbucks stores comes as states across the country have passed a string of laws targeting LGBTQ+ individuals, particularly transgender Americans. Conservative consumers have boycotted inclusion of or marketing to transgender people by brands such as Bud Light and Target.

The allegations by the Starbucks union suggested that backlash had reached Starbucks, which has long had a reputation as a liberal bastion in corporate America and touted its health benefits for LGBTQ+ workers.

— CNBC’s Amelia Lucas contributed to this report.

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