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Starbucks Faces Scrutiny Over Unionization Efforts: Judge Orders Disclosure
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U.S. Judge Orders Starbucks to Reveal Spending on Unionization Efforts

In a recent development, Starbucks Corporation (SBUX.O) finds itself under the microscope as it faces scrutiny from U.S. regulators regarding its financial disclosures related to efforts to discuss unionization with its workers. A federal judge has ruled that Starbucks must furnish regulators with documents detailing its expenditures in this regard.

The Regulatory Probe


The ruling, announced by the U.S. Labor Department on Friday, demands that Starbucks provide a comprehensive breakdown of expenses incurred while engaging workers regarding unionization. Specifically, the coffee giant must document travel expenses paid out for sending former CEO Howard Schultz and other top company officers to Buffalo, New York, in 2021. This trip followed workers in Buffalo filing a petition to hold a union election.

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The Labor Department’s investigation revolves around whether Starbucks should have disclosed expenses associated with the Buffalo trip and bonuses paid to the company officers involved. Federal law mandates that employers report fees intended to discourage organizing efforts and union membership among their workforce.

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Unionization Gains Momentum

Notably, in December 2021, a Starbucks location in Buffalo became the first in the company’s history to unionize, setting a precedent successfully. Subsequently, workers at over 360 Starbucks locations across the United States have followed suit, fueling concerns and allegations of union-busting practices within the company.

Facing Allegations and Legal Challenges

Starbucks and its former CEO, Howard Schultz, have been confronted with allegations of widespread illegal union-busting by workers, labor groups, and Democratic lawmakers. The company, however, has vehemently denied these claims and is currently defending itself against numerous complaints before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which operates independently from the Labor Department.

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Last week, the NLRB made a significant move by ordering Starbucks to disclose a document known as the “petition store playbook.” This document outlines the company’s strategies and responses to worker petitions seeking union elections. This directive came from a specific case involving organizing efforts at a Starbucks store in Connecticut.

Judge’s Orders

In the recent ruling issued by U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle, Starbucks was further directed to provide records of expenses incurred in establishing and maintaining a website to provide information about union organizing efforts.

In response to these developments, Starbucks stated that it has not been formally accused of any wrongdoing by the Labor Department. The company emphasized its commitment to engaging with government officials to provide clarification regarding its compliance with labor laws that span decades.

The Labor Department’s Perspective

Jeff Freund, the director of the Labor Department’s office responsible for enforcing reporting laws, expressed that the judge’s ruling will play a crucial role in the agency’s investigation. It will help determine whether Starbucks was obligated to report its expenses related to the Buffalo trip and the website.

The Labor Department initiated the process by serving Starbucks with a subpoena earlier in the year and subsequently filed a court petition in May after the company raised objections.

Starbucks’ Arguments

Starbucks had argued that the disclosure law did not necessitate the reporting of payments made to its employees who were actively involved in responding to unionization campaigns. The company contended that the Labor Department had never previously requested such information and that it was unlawful for the agency to change its stance without formally adopting a new rule.

In her ruling, Judge Pechman acknowledged Starbucks’ arguments and allowed the company to present these points as defenses if the Labor Department eventually accuses Starbucks of violating the disclosure law. However, she clarified that these arguments were not grounds to dismiss the issued subpoena.

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