US Reporter

Shareholders Approve Proposal for Third-Party Assessment of Starbucks’ Adherence to Workers’ Rights

Starbucks, the world-famous coffee chain, is under increasing scrutiny from investors for its stance on unionization. At the company’s annual meeting last week, investors voted for an independent review of the company’s anti-union activities. 

The decision was made in response to allegations that Starbucks intimidated and retaliated against workers who tried to organize. 

According to the plan that was adopted, Starbucks’ adherence to its claimed commitment to workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining rights will be evaluated independently by a third party. If it is determined that the corporation has violated its own professed commitment to employees’ rights, the investigation would include remedies.

Such shareholder motions, although not binding, carry considerable weight. Companies that ignore approved proposals can anger investors and damage their reputation and financial performance.  

Starbucks had already begun work on a human rights review and had encouraged shareholders to vote against the proposal, claiming it was acting lawfully. 

Notwithstanding Starbucks’ objection, the proposal’s approval demonstrates that the majority of the company’s investors are worried about the company’s stance on worker rights. Jonas Kron, the chief advocacy officer at Trillium Asset Management, one of the proposal’s backers, echoed this opinion.

Mr Kron pointed out that Starbucks’ anti-union activity puts the company at reputational and legal risk. has been subject to scrutiny. As a result, Starbucks investors are increasingly concerned about the company’s stance on workers’ rights. 

Bitter Fight Unionization

This move by Starbucks’ investors to push for an independent review of the company’s anti-union efforts is part of a broader trend in the corporate world. 

Companies are facing increasing pressure from investors, consumers, and regulators to prioritize environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues. Investors are now pushing companies to take a more proactive stance on issues like climate change, social justice, and workers’ rights.

Over the past year and a half, Starbucks has been embroiled in a bitter fight against unionization efforts across the United States. The first Starbucks location agreed to unionize in December 2021, and since then, nearly 300 locations have voted to unionize and been certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). 

While roughly 60 locations have voted against unionization and been certified by the NLRB, the victories for unionized locations have been hard-won.

The fight for unionization at Starbucks was brought to the forefront of national attention recently when former employees testified about the company’s labor practices before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. 

One employee spoke of being wrongfully fired after organizing, while another described workers being disciplined for minor dress code violations and being a few minutes late after their store began organizing.

NLRB administrative law judge Michael Rosas has also weighed in on Starbucks’ anti-union tactics, writing that the company displayed “egregious and widespread misconduct” in its dealings with employees involved in unionization efforts in Buffalo, New York. 

According to the judge, Starbucks repeatedly sent high-level executives into Buffalo-area stores in a “relentless” effort to dissuade employees from unionizing, which “likely left a lasting impact as to the importance of voting against representation.”

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Decisions and Remedies

Starbucks has pushed back against these allegations, saying in a statement that it is “considering all options to obtain further legal review” and that it believes the NLRB’s decision and the remedies ordered are inappropriate.

As the fight for unionization at Starbucks continues, it raises broader questions about the role of unions in today’s economy. 

Many believe that unionization is essential for protecting workers’ rights and improving working conditions, particularly in the service sector where low wages and unstable employment are common. Others argue that unionization can be a barrier to innovation and flexibility in the workplace, making it difficult for companies to respond to changing market conditions.

Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ Chairman Emeritus, faced questions during the hearing, but his claims that the company has been acting legally and that the findings against it merely amount to “allegations” failed to convince his critics. 

Starbucks Workers United said the vote’s outcome shows “how worried shareholders are about Starbucks’ behavior towards our union under Howard Schultz’s leadership.”

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Review on a Deeper Level

In response, Starbucks said that it is “undertaking an independent, third-party human rights impact assessment, which will include a deeper-level review of the principles of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.” 

The assessment is intended to inform leaders “of any changes we can make to our operations to improve the partner experience,” Starbucks said. However, there is still a lack of clarity about the standard Starbucks will assess itself against and what remedies it will put in place.

According to Jonas Kron, who is the chief advocacy officer at Trillium Asset Management and supported the proposal, the outcome of the vote could prompt the new CEO of Starbucks, Laxman Narasimhan, and the current board of directors to adopt a different stance towards unionization.

They “can look to this vote as indicating there’s investor support for a pivot—that they really are in a position to change behavior now.”

Unionization refers to the process by which a group of employees, known as a union, come together to negotiate with their employer for better working conditions, wages, benefits, and job security. The union is usually represented by elected officials who negotiate with the employer on behalf of the employees. 

Furthermore, unionization can provide employees with a stronger voice in their workplace and help to protect their rights. It can also provide a mechanism for resolving disputes with employers and creating a more stable and productive work environment. However, the decision to unionize is often controversial and can result in tension and conflict between employees and employers.

Photo: Starbucks

Opinions expressed by US Reporter contributors are their own.