SANTA CLARA, CALIF. — Starbucks Corp. employees met with U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna at his California office on Friday and contended the company is retaliating against employees who unionize or are trying to organize, and is not bargaining in good faith.
The giant coffee chain denies those allegations. But what the Democratic congressman from Silicon Valley heard Friday from Starbucks
employees and union representatives in a meeting attended by MarketWatch echoes other complaints from around the nation that the company is engaging in union-busting — and he vowed to continue to try to help make sure the employees are treated fairly.
Edith Saldano, who works at a location in Santa Cruz County, sat next to the congressman and told him that the company “has embarrassed us over and over again and has not respected us.” Saldano said that during her store’s first bargaining session in November, Starbucks’ lawyers walked out after three minutes.
Saldano fought back tears as she recounted that she had “waited all day” and lost out on a day’s worth of work, which she really needed because she was “houseless” at the time in an area known for its high cost of living. She handed Khanna the employees’ contract proposal.
“We’re asking that you read it over and that you talk to them,” said Saldano, who added that she also sits on the national bargaining committee.
Khanna agreed to take a look and told Saldano: “I appreciate you for fighting not just for yourself but for everyone.”
The congressman has prided himself on being pro-labor and standing with low-wage workers, including Silicon Valley janitors and California’s fast-food workers, through the years. Khanna told the Starbucks employees Friday he has also met with the company’s unionized workers in Los Angeles, and that he hopes to help persuade the company — which is in transition and is set to have its new chief executive officially take over in a couple of months — change its approach to the growing movement to unionize at hundreds of its stores.
The National Labor Relations Board has accused Starbucks of illegally firing workers who have unionized, and the company is facing hundreds of charges of violating labor laws. Judges have ruled against the company in some of those cases. Starbucks in turn has filed complaints with the NLRB, accusing the union of not bargaining in good faith.
A couple of other Starbucks employees who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal at a Bay Area store where they’re seeking to unionize also gave emotional testimonies at Khanna’s office on Friday. They spoke of having their hours reduced to the point where they don’t qualify for benefits, and being understaffed and overworked in physically demanding jobs.
“They run us into the ground until we’re too fatigued, and we’re replaced with cheaper baristas,” one of the employees said. “We’re organizing because we’re powerless as individuals.”
The other said Starbucks “is dominating the market by any means necessary,” and that employees “need the support of congressmen” and other leaders.
Brandon Dawkins, vice president of organizing for SEIU Local 1021, said possible retaliation by the company is also “putting fear into stores that want to unionize… they see what the unionized workers are going through.”
Khanna thanked the employees for their “courage,” and said “this will be a priority for me just like last Congress,” and outlined how he plans to continue to try to help.
Starbucks spokesman Andrew Trull said Friday that allegations that the company has not bargained in good faith are “simply false.” Trull said Starbucks has “come to the table” for more than 85 bargaining sessions at different stores since October.
“At each of these sessions with Workers United, Starbucks has been met by union representatives who insist on broadcasting in-person sessions to unknown individuals not in the room and, in some instances, have posted excerpts of the sessions online,” Trull said.
As for the allegations that Starbucks is reducing the number of hours available for employees who unionize, Trull said “Starbucks has a longstanding practice of adjusting store hours to reflect seasonal changes in customer demand.”
A spokesperson for Starbucks Workers United said longtime Starbucks employees say “the current pattern of reducing hours does not fit the history in the company.” In addition, the union spokesperson said the company is complicating scheduling of meetings by not allowing bargaining committee members unpaid time off; that the union and the company have agreed to virtual bargaining sessions; and that the union introduces participants for every meeting.
Outgoing Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz refused to appear before a Senate committee last week that wanted to ask him about the accusations of labor-law violations by the company.
The company’s letter to Sanders said that since Schultz is on his way out as CEO, the company was offering its chief public affairs officer, Al Jones, to appear before the committee instead.
The chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders, said in a statement lasst week that he intends “to hold Mr. Schultz and Starbucks accountable for their unacceptable behavior.”
In October, Khanna and 30 other lawmakers sent a letter to Schultz, urging him and the company to work with the unions that have formed at hundreds of Starbucks stores around the nation.
Since then, the congressman’s staff has been in touch with the company, whose representatives have told them that Starbucks is allowing workers to exercise their rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
Khanna told the employees on Friday that he has corresponded with new Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan and expects to meet with him after he takes over April 1.
“I’m hopeful that between the approach to him and the approach to some of the board members, who I know, that they may see the light — allowing for reasonable unionization and reasonable terms,” Khanna said. He mentioned that Microsoft Corp.
last year came to a neutrality agreement with the Communications Workers of America; Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is a Starbucks board member.
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