Ever since baristas at a Buffalo, New York, Starbucks location voted to form a union, the coffee behemoth’s position has been clear: it has no plans to work cooperatively with its workers as they exercise their legally protected right to organize. Now, the chain is ramping up its anti-union rhetoric across the country, and some baristas say that Starbucks managers are “threatening” workers’ healthcare benefits in an effort to squash the chain’s rapidly growing unionization movement.
In a complaint filed on Monday with the National Labor Relations Board, workers at an Oklahoma City Starbucks allege that they were pulled into a meeting and told by management that they could lose access to trans-inclusive healthcare offered by the company if their union effort succeeds, Bloomberg reports. Starbucks first announced in 2013 that it would expand its healthcare benefits to include gender confirmation surgery and in 2018 expanded that benefit to cover other procedures, like breast augmentation and facial feminization surgery. Of course, without a union, those benefits have always been available to employees on Starbucks’s terms, meaning that they could have been unilaterally rescinded at any time.
Although the company denies that it has threatened to withhold benefits for unionizing workers — likely because that practice is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act — it’s a common tactic for anti-union employers like Starbucks. If found true, the allegations of threatening to withhold these lifesaving benefits would be in keeping with Starbucks’s treatment of the union since the first stores voted to unionize in 2021. The company has engaged in a wide range of anti-union actions, from firing workers involved in organizing campaigns to interim CEO Howard Schultz yelling at a barista who asked him why the company has assumed such an aggressively anti-union posture. On June 10, workers at an Ithaca Starbucks that had unionized said that they were given less than a week’s notice that their store would close. Two other (non-union) Ithaca locations remain open.
Starbucks has faced dozens of unfair labor practice charges from the union, and in May, the NLRB ruled that the company had to reinstate — and compensate with back pay — seven workers at a Memphis location who were fired by the company in retaliation for their involvement with the union. Also in May, Starbucks announced that it would raise its minimum wage to $15 at all locations, but said that it planned to withhold future pay increases from workers at stores that have voted to unionize.
But threatening trans-inclusive healthcare at this specific moment feels especially ghoulish, even for Starbucks. Trans rights are under attack across the country, and that’s especially true in a state like Oklahoma, where legislators have passed at least three bills this year targeting trans Oklahomans. In May, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law a bill that requires trans students at Oklahoma public schools to use the bathroom that matches the gender on their birth certificates. The bill also threatens to remove funding from schools who do not comply. That legislation follows an executive order from Stitt that bans even trans adults from changing gender markers on their birth certificates.
“Trans rights are labor rights. Our fight to make this state better for transgender people will also benefit all workers, and the current wave of unionization makes the workplace a safer place for transgender people,” said Neha Cremin, a worker at an Oklahoma City Starbucks. “Most of my coworkers are queer, and many of us rely on the transgender healthcare benefits. We are uniquely vulnerable when Starbucks makes veiled threats that gender-affirming healthcare could be taken away. Many of us began working at Starbucks because it was the only realistic way we could think to afford transition-related healthcare.”
Starbucks has long positioned itself as a progressive company, especially when it comes to its benefits, including trans-inclusive healthcare and college tuition assistance. But those days may be coming to an end. Along with the company’s anti-worker actions, Schultz has said that Starbucks could soon ditch its “open bathrooms” policy, which was implemented in 2018 after two Black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks were denied access to the bathroom and later arrested for trespassing because they had not yet made a purchase.
At this point, it’s clear that Starbucks is afraid of the union, and rightfully so. More than 250 stores have announced their intention to unionize, and 100 have voted to form a union. Starbucks Workers United is no longer an annoying fly that Schultz can swat away with a few unfair labor practices here and there; it’s a growing movement that is winning both in the court of public opinion and at the NLRB.
It’s possible, though, that Starbucks’s anti-union view could change dramatically when it finally finds a new CEO. The company is currently “looking externally” for a new leader and hopes to announce Schultz’s successor sometime in the fall.
Update: June 14, 2022, 2:50 p.m.: This article was updated to include a quote from a Starbucks worker in Oklahoma City.