By Danielle Wiener-Bronner, CNN Business
Starbucks is requesting a suspension of mail-in ballots at unionization votes currently going on at its stores across America. The coffee chain is accusing National Labor Relation Board employees in Kansas and elsewhere of misconduct in handling these mail-in votes, actions it said has skewed results in favor of unionization.
The NLRB workers in question “engaged in highly improper, systemic misconduct involving Starbucks and Workers United,” the company’s general counsel wrote in a letter to the NLRB. Starbucks said an NLRB whistle-blower alerted the company to the alleged misconduct.
Starbucks has been attempting to fend off a growing unionization movement for several months now. As of Friday, the NLRB has certified votes to unionize at 199 Starbucks stores, and votes against unionizing at 36. So far, there have been election petitions at 314 stores overall.
Starbucks charges that NLRB employees allowed some pro-union workers to vote in person, although it had been decided that ballots would be submitted via mail. Some workers missed the deadline to vote by mail but weren’t offered the option to vote in person, Starbucks alleged, encouraging a pro-union result.
The coffee chain also alleged that the NLRB workers gave the union information like when and how many ballots it received in the mail.
“In light of these types of misconduct by NLRB personnel, we request the Board immediately suspend all Starbucks mail-ballot elections nationwide … until there has been a thorough investigation,” Starbucks said in the letter.
Starbucks is asking that the results of an investigation by the board into the alleged misconduct be made public, and that “safeguards to prevent future misconduct” are put in place before moving forward. In the future, it wants elections to be held in person.
“The NLRB does not comment on open cases,” said Kayla Blado, director and press secretary at the NLRB’s office of congressional and public affairs, in a statement on the letter.
“The agency has well-established processes to raise challenges regarding the handling of both election matters and unfair labor practice cases,” she said. “Those challenges should be raised in filings specific to the particular matters in question.” Blado noted that any questions raised in these channels would be “carefully and objectively” considered by the board.
Stores voting to unionize make up just a fraction of the roughly 9,000 company-operated Starbucks stores in the United States. However, Starbucks has been taking the efforts seriously.
Starbucks has made clear that it wants a direct line of communication with employees and that a union would get in the way. It has said that it can’t guarantee that workers in a union will have access to certain benefits offered to non-union employees. And in May, Starbucks said it was concerned that the White House left it out of a meeting with union representatives.
Union organizers say that the coffee chain has been acting unfairly, and that the NLRB letter is another example of the company acting in bad faith.
“This is Starbucks yet again attempting to distract attention away from their unprecedented anti-union campaign,” Starbucks Workers United said in a statement. “Ultimately, this is Starbucks’ latest attempt to manipulate the legal process for their own means and prevent workers from exercising their fundamental right to organize.” Starbucks says it respects employees right to seek a union.
The NLRB has also accused the company of unfairly punishing workers who want to unionize. The board said Friday that it is currently processing 284 unfair labor practice cases against Starbucks, which aren’t all necessarily related to election petitions.
In the letter, Starbucks noted that “the NLRB General Counsel and other Board personnel have repeatedly stated that Starbucks has committed more than one hundred ‘unfair labor practice’ violations,” but that “these statements are contradicted by the fact that the Board to date has not made any finding regarding the merits of any Starbucks violation.”
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