(CN) — One hundred Starbucks locations across the country went on strike Wednesday morning in protest of the coffee company's anti-union tactics.
The strike comes a day before the company's annual shareholder meeting and just two days after new CEO Laxman Narasimhan took the reins from former CEO Howard Schultz, who has faced criticism for his anti-union stance.
The timing of the strike was no coincidence.
"We wanted to send a message to the new CEO that we're going to hold him accountable," Chris Trascapoulous, a striking Starbucks employee in Chicago whom co-workers had elected as "the media guy," said in an interview.
Over the last 15 months, almost 300 Starbucks locations and over 7,500 workers across the country have unionized under the banner of Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. It's been an explosive growth of worker organization for a company that had no unionized U.S. facilities prior to December 2021, when the first successful union election occurred at a Starbucks shop in Buffalo, New York.
Amid the unionization wave, both workers and the National Labor Relations Board say the company has used punitive, illegal union-busting practices to halt its momentum. The NLRB has found Starbucks liable for multiple anti-union infractions since December 2021.
Earlier this month, Administrative Law Judge Michael Rosas made the most damning ruling yet, finding Starbucks guilty of "egregious and widespread misconduct demonstrating a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights."
The company had pressured managers to surveil pro-union employees, promised improved benefits and working conditions to employees who rejected unionization efforts, and fired employees who engaged in legal union organizing, his 218-page opinion found.
New and more onerous employment conditions at Starbucks were "motivated by animus towards employees’ union [organization] or other protected activities," Rosas wrote in the ruling.
In the aftermath of that ruling, Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator and two-time Democratic presidential hopeful, threatened to subpoena then-CEO Schultz to testify before the U.S. Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. While Schultz ultimately agreed to testify, he also stepped down as CEO — for the third time in his career — on Monday. His departure comes two weeks earlier than his planned retirement date of April 1.
"Our company is like a river — the stewards of it will change over time, but it’s always growing and changing, carving a new path and moving forward to something better," Schultz wrote in a prepared statement to company employees on Monday. "As I step away, I leave you all as the stewards, in service of all of our partners."
Schultz, who helped build Starbucks into a multinational corporation from the 1980s onward, acted as its CEO from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2008 to 2018. He returned for a third stint as CEO in April 2022, replacing former chief Kevin Johnson.
Despite Schultz' lofty rhetoric, Workers United and other labor advocates interpreted his latest return as an attempt to stem the tide of unionization. Over the course of 2022, he waged what Workers United called "an unprecedented anti-union campaign."
“We look forward to Howard Schultz testifying in front of the HELP Senate committee," the group said in a statement this month. "It is high time for him to be held accountable for his actions."
The incoming Narasimhan has so far offered no indication that he will prove any more amenable to unionization efforts than Schultz. That's why Workers United decided to inaugurate his first week in office with a 100-store national strike, said Trascapoulous.
Besides protesting the company's anti-union offenses, Trascapoulous said the strike was also in response to low wages and oppressive working conditions.
While Starbucks implemented a $15 per hour base pay for all employees at corporate locations in August 2022, senior baristas often languish for years without promised pay increases, he said. He cited the example of one employee who he said was "still trying to get max pay" despite having worked at the company for 22 years.
A single-day work stoppage is unlikely to resolve these complaints, as none of the Starbucks locations that have voted to unionize have yet finalized their collective bargaining agreements with the company.
Still, Workers United hopes the strike will send a message to Narasimhan that the company's hostility to worker organization won't work.
"Starbucks stores across the country are striking to demand an end to Starbucks' illegal union-busting campaign," Workers United said in a statement posted on social media on Wednesday. "While the company keeps a metaphorical 'empty chair' for us in the boardroom, we're demanding a real seat at the table!"
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