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Ex-Starbucks CEO Schultz illegally threatened union supporter, NLRB judge rules

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Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz testifies about the company’s labor and union practices during a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, March 29, 2023. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Saul Loeb | Afp | Getty Images

Former Starbucks Corpunion organizing to “go work for another company,” a National Labor Relations Board judge has ruled.

Administrative Law Judge Brian Gee in Los Angeles said in a decision issued on Friday that the comment Schultz made during a “listening tour” last year amounted to an illegal threat against the worker, Madison Hall.

Schultz had met with a group of employees from Starbucks locations in Long Beach, California, to discuss concerns about working conditions.

Starbucks in a statement did not comment directly on the finding that Schultz violated the law. The company said it hosted listening sessions across the country last year “to gather input on how best to shape the experiences in our stores.”

Lawyers for Starbucks Workers United, which is organizing the company’s workers and filed a complaint on behalf of Hall, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Workers at more than 360 Starbucks locations in the U.S., including one in Long Beach, have voted to join unions since late 2021.

Starbucks and Schultz have faced allegations of widespread illegal union-busting from workers, labor groups and Democratic lawmakers. The company has denied the claims and is defending itself against scores of complaints before the NLRB and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor.

At the listening session at a conference center in Long Beach last April, Hall said the company should engage in collective bargaining and sign a pledge not to interfere with union organizing, among other comments. No other worker at the meeting raised concerns related to unionizing, according to board filings.

Hall then asked Schultz about allegations of illegal labor practices in complaints pending at the NLRB, according to the filings.

Schultz responded that he had not come to discuss union issues and told Hall that “if you’re not happy at Starbucks, you can go work for another company.”

Gee said Schultz’s “angry reaction” to Hall’s comments amounted to a warning that protected pro-union speech was not compatible with employment at Starbucks, in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

The judge’s decision can be appealed to the five-member NLRB and then to a federal appeals court.

Gee dismissed a separate claim that Starbucks unlawfully interrogated workers at the meeting by asking them to write their concerns about the company on Post-It notes and place stickers next to comments by other workers that they agreed with.

Starbucks in its statement said it was pleased that Gee found the listening session “both lawful and rooted in our past practices.”

The case is Starbucks Corp, National Labor Relations Board, No. 21-CA-294571.

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