Starbucks, the US, and collective bargaining: a strained combination Photo by Asael Peña on Unsplash

Starbucks, the US, and collective bargaining: a strained combination

Starbucks’ legal war against trade unions and collective bargaining.

The Starbucks Company is well known in many countries throughout the world. Free Wifi, many different brands of coffee, served by professional barristers, Starbucks is a popular place to be.

Starbucks is a large company. It employs 350,000 workers across the globe and 150,000 in the US alone. It is listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange, and it makes good revenue and profits. Why, then, are there currently so many freedom-of-association issues at stake in the US concerning Starbucks? Around 70 issues in the field of organizing and labor law have been brought before the courts by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and are being contested by Starbucks. Unionists are being dismissed, Starbucks shops that choose to unionize are being closed, there are cases against those dismissals and closures are pending before the courts.

On top of that, the Service Employee International Union (SEIO) and the largest American trade union AFL-CIO recently filed a complaint against the US at the Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva. They did so, because freedom of association is not guaranteed at Starbucks Company and not protected carefully enough by the US. According to international law, freedom of association and collective bargaining is a fundamental right of workers. Since 1949, it has been laid down in the Conventions 87 & 98 of the ILO, part of the UN family. There is a high level of ratification of these Conventions (around 85%) by the member states of the ILO, especially since they are part of the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, 1998.

Freedom of association as a fundamental right for workers is also part of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and can be found in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, in the Inter-American Convention of Human Rights, and in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

The OECD refers to freedom of association in its Guidelines for multinationals, as the ILO does in its Guidelines for those companies. And remember, the ILO is a tripartite organization, the employers are represented in the Governing Body, together with workers and governments.

Starbucks is a socially responsible company (CSR) and has solemnly declared that it will respect the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights (UNGP), including the ILO’s Core Labour Standards, amongst them the freedom of association. Starbucks is also a member of Global Compact, a UN organization, set up by Kofi Annan in 2003, which now counts over 15,000 large companies in the world as members. In fact, Principle 3 of the 10 Principles of Global Compact is the freedom of association

These were the principles and rules. But what about the practice?

Starbucks recognizes the right to organize, but claims at the same time its own right to defend itself against this right, according to an interview CEO Howard Schulz gave to CNN on 22 February 2023. Schulz took the same position in a hearing by the Senate Committee under the chairmanship of Bernie Sanders. The unions protested against dismissals of trade union organizers at the NLRB, an independent organization supervising and monitoring the US Federal National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB has initiated several law cases against Starbucks in several states, trying to protect the freedom of association and collective bargaining. Starbucks is contesting systematically the views of the NLRB. It does not want to become ‘unionized’.

What do the words on the Starbucks website ‘to respect the freedom of association and collective bargaining’ mean according to the UNGP? Is it possible to respect those rights and at the same time dismiss workers for organizing, and contest the decisions of the NLRB before the courts as a matter of policy? According to the creator of the UNGPs, the late Harvard professor Ruggie, ‘to respect’ means: to avoid infringing of the rights of others and addressing adverse impacts that may occur’.

According to the ILO’s interpretation of the Conventions 87 and 98, it is not allowed to dismiss workers for organizing. It is also not allowed to interfere in the activities of the unions at or around the workplace. In many Decisions of the CFA, published in the Compilation of decisions of the CFA it is stated: ‘No person should be dismissed or prejudiced in employment by reason of trade union membership or legitimate trade union activities.’ And it also reads: ‘It is important to forbid and penalize in practice all acts of anti-union discrimination in respect of employment’, see para 1075 of the Compilation.

Clear language, not practiced by Starbucks.

The US and freedom of association/collective bargaining

What is the US government doing against it? President Biden is known as a great supporter of the trade unions. But the US did not ratify the ILO Conventions 87 and 98. It is long-standing policy of the US not to ratify Conventions of the ILO. An important reason is that creation and enforcement of labor law in the US is mostly up to the states and not to the federal government.

But at the same time, the US is a valued member of the ILO, endorsing and supporting the core principles, like the freedom of association. It has even taken up this principle in Free Trade Agreements , for instance in the recent (2020) Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Mexico and Canada, known as USMCA. On the basis of the USMCA, the US forced Mexico to change its national labor law to guarantee that free trade unions can be active in, for instance, the automotive industries in Mexico. Mexico has a tradition of management-led, non-independent, ‘yellow’ unions. Since the start of the USMCA, in several cases the US Trade Representative has invoked the new Rapid Response Labor Mechanism, included in the FTA, to guarantee freedom of association, for instance at General Motors factories in Mexico.

It is more difficult, it seems, for the US federal government to guarantee the same freedom for unions in its own country. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), dating from 1935 and the basis for the NLRB to act, seems not strict enough here. The NLRB cannot enforce the ILO principles as it should; it apparently lacks the power to act properly. Remedies and sanctions in the law are not enough of a deterrent to prevent union-hostile behavior by employers.

Although the US did not ratify the relevant ILO Conventions 87 and 98, a complaint from trade unions submitted to the CFA can be received. That is standard procedure of the CFA. The principle of freedom of association lies at the very heart of the ILO, it is embedded in its Constitution. In the past, several cases against the US have been handled by the CFA, with the full cooperation of the US.

Clear guidance by the CFA

I am curious to learn what the CFA will recommend to the US this time. And what the CFA will tell Starbucks, considering its policy on CSR, its membership of Global Compact, its subscription of the core labor standards, and its promise to respect the freedom of association. The complainants requested an ‘on-the-spot-mission’, meaning that CFA members will speak in the US with Starbucks workers, unions, and management. According to the rules of the CFA such a mission is possible, but seldom realized.

I hope the CFA will respond positively to that request, go to the US, and come up with clear guidance for future developments. It is time for the US to ensure respect for freedom of association – not only in words or promises, but most of all in practice.


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