Ray Schmidt was one of many Starbucks employees who spoke to the New York Times last week about allegations surrounding the company’s approach to Pride decorations. It seemed like an obvious move — he and other workers claimed there was a new policy in place that kept them from decorating their stores as they had in previous years, and Schmidt felt it was important to speak up, especially at a time when anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and policy has been spreading. (In response to the allegations, Starbucks said, “Our store leaders are each empowered to decorate their stores for heritage months, including Pride Month, within the framework of our established store safety guidelines.”)
It also felt safe. Schmidt knew that according to the National Labor Relations Act, speaking to the media about the conditions at his Strongsville, Ohio, store is considered protected concerted activity. Speaking out about the issues Starbucks workers have faced from management in the midst of a massive union drive has been a way to both garner public support for actions like strikes and boycotts, and rally other workers. But Schmidt and organizers at the Starbucks union, SB Workers United, say management at that store and others are attempting to retaliate against workers who speak to the press.
Schmidt says the day after he spoke to the Times about his store’s Pride decorations, his manager “started bringing out [the Starbucks media policy] and having all of the shift supervisors sign it.” A copy of the policy posted in the Strongsville store and sent to Eater reads that all partners (Starbucks’ word for employees) must route media inquiries to the media relations hotline, and that it is “critical to protect the brand by ensuring all partners who engage with media provide clear, consistent messaging” that aligns with Starbucks’ brand goals. Starbucks’ internal partner guide, available to all employees, also reads that “without exception,” only approved Starbucks spokespeople may speak to the media.
Schmidt says his understanding of the policy was that it’s supposed to apply to workers when press calls or shows up to a store in person, asking to speak to workers on shift, or when asked to speak on behalf of the brand. Schmidt says he was not at work when he made his comments to the Times. A spokesperson for Starbucks confirmed the policy does in fact only apply to employees being asked to speak to the press while on the clock. But the language in the policy is broad, and doesn’t specify that it only concerns employees who are currently working. That could lead to situations in which regional managers use it to justify essentially muzzling their employees from speaking about their own working conditions.
Schmidt felt that the timing of being asked to sign the media policy the day after he spoke with the Times was suspicious. “I just signed it and said whatever, because go ahead and write me up.” SBWU says it will be filing a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). (Reached for comment, a manager at the Strongsville store directed Eater to the Starbucks press hotline.)
Charlotte Garden, a labor law professor at the University of Minnesota, says that regardless of how Starbucks’ corporate PR team describes the policy when asked for clarification, the way it’s written could be interpreted as applying to any and all contact with the media without exception, which could violate labor law. “It’s crystal clear that [the NLRA] includes the right to talk to other people, including members of the press, about working conditions,” she says. And while there are exceptions, those are about sharing trade secrets or other secure information. “None of that seems to be implicated [in the Strongsville store’s case]. This seems kind of a classic protected activity: Talking in the press about working conditions.” And while the NLRB under the Trump administration may have sided with the company, “I think it’s likely that the current NLRB would see things the same way, and decide that the policy violates labor law.”
SBWU says there have been other instances of store managers using the company’s media policy to demand workers not speak to the press at all. Specifically, in a complaint filed to the NLRB in October, SBWU alleges that an Olympia, Washington, location enforced the media policy “selectively and disparately by requiring employees to read and sign a copy of the rule during the Union’s organizing campaign at the facility, and specifically because [the store manager] was aware that local news media was inquiring about the Union’s ongoing organizing campaign.” The case is coming up for a hearing with the NLRB next month.
Garden speculates Starbucks may be willing to face fines or a legal slap on the wrist if it means workers don’t unionize. While the NLRB could get a worker reinstated if Starbucks fired them for speaking to the press, the implied threat of being fired, even if it’s illegal, is still enough to keep many people quiet. “To me, Starbucks is kind of the poster child for why labor law needs to have both very fast remedies and much more harsh remedies,” she says.
A Starbucks spokesperson reiterated that employees are free to speak on their own behalf while on their own time, that the company makes regular efforts through training and resources to ensure managers comply with labor law, and that they take appropriate action when these policies are not consistently applied.
Starbucks has flouted labor laws in the past. In March, a judge ruled the company illegally fired workers organizing a union in Buffalo, New York. The judge in that case said the company engaged in “egregious and widespread misconduct demonstrating a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights.” That same month, former CEO and current board member Howard Schultz defended the company’s alleged anti-union stance to Bernie Sanders and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, saying he was not prepared to follow the NLRB judge’s orders because “Starbucks Coffee Company did not break the law.” In May, a judge ruled the company illegally fired a barista in Chicago, and threatened workers, saying they could lose benefits if they unionized. Just this month, the company settled an NLRB complaint that accused it of denying lucrative shifts at University of Washington football games to unionized employees. As part of the settlement, Starbucks agreed to give back pay to the employees.
The potential threats don’t seem to be stopping workers from standing up for themselves. Employees across the country are currently on strike to demand fair contracts, and are citing the allegations surrounding Pride decorations as the “latest in Starbucks’ retaliation against workers.”
“Starbucks is scared of the power that their queer partners hold, and they should be. Their choice to align themselves with other corporations that have withdrawn their ‘support’ of the queer community in the time we need it most shows that they are not the inclusive company they promote themselves to be,” said Moe Mills, a shift supervisor from Richmond Heights, Missouri, in a statement released by SBWU. “We’re striking with pride to show the public who Starbucks really is, and to let them know we’re not going anywhere.”
Schmidt also plans to keep speaking out. “They can make threats all they want, but I think at the end of the day they know it’s against the law. And if they were to take any action against me, I know I’d be found in the right. Nobody’s going to silence me through intimidation.”