A group of workers at the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Chelsea submitted a petition this week to hold a vote to oust their union, a little more than a year since employees at the location became the first in the chain to unionize in New York City. 

The Roastery workers seeking to purge the Starbucks Workers United union from their location are represented pro-bono by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTW), a longtime adversary of organized labor that focuses on allowing workers to opt out of unions. 

Among the group’s past victories is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus decision, which held that government workers do not have to pay union dues, overturning decades of precedent. 

The Starbucks workers’ petition opens up a vote with the federal National Labor Relations Board, which oversees unionization and decertification elections.

The Chelsea store, which was the tenth Starbucks nationally to unionize, gained visibility last fall with a seven-week strike that resulted in an agreement from the company to regularly clean and sanitize their cafe and equipment, after state health inspectors substantiated workers’ complaints of mold and pests.

Roastery worker Kevin Caesar, who submitted the petition, declined a request for comment through a National Right to Work spokesperson.

“No worker anywhere should be forced under so-called union ‘representation’ they oppose,” organization president Mark Mix said in a statement on Wednesday. “Starbucks workers around the nation that also fall victim to union tyranny should know they can turn to Foundation staff attorneys for assistance.”

In a statement, Starbucks Workers United NY/NJ Joint Board spokesperson Leanne Tory-Murphy slammed the petition filing as “part of a concerted union-busting effort on the part of Starbucks with the support of the Koch brothers-funded right-wing anti-union” NRTW.

(National Right to Work’s efforts in Janus and other cases were partially funded by Donors Trust, a firm linked to conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.)

Tory-Murphy also noted the union’s rapid and expansive organizing efforts, which have brought in thousands of workers across 308 stores since December 2021 — 301 of which have been certified, according to numbers released by the NLRB on Wednesday.

“We expect the decertification petition to be dismissed and workers at the Roastery are committed to continue organizing and fighting for a fair first contract,” she added.

A Starbucks spokesperson denied the union’s allegation that it’s collaborating with the foundation.

“​​Starbucks has no affiliation with The National Right to Work Foundation, has made no contribution to the organization and has not been party to efforts by the Foundation to assist partners seeking to file a decertification petition with the NLRB,” said the spokesperson, Andrew Trull.

Mix also denied any partnership. “The fact is National Right to Work Foundation staff attorneys only represent employees, not employers, and assist those workers who reach out to us in exercising their rights under federal law,” he said in a statement.

Percolating Problems

Petitions to decertify can be filed no sooner than one year after a union’s certification, and at least 30% of workers must sign in support of the move, according to NLRB rules, when there is no collective bargaining agreement in place. The union is dissolved if a majority of workers ultimately vote against representation. The NLRB certified the Roastery union election results on April 12, 2022, according to agency spokesperson Kayla Blado.

National Right to Work has not disclosed how many Roastery workers supported the petition. The NLRB has not yet set a date for an election, Blado said.

The move by the Roastery workers comes days after workers at two other New York stores, in Rochester and Buffalo, also submitted decertification petitions. National Right to Work spokesperson Kaela Thompson said the group is not behind those moves. 

Starbucks has so far not settled collective bargaining agreements with workers at any of the 301 stores nationwide whose union elections were certified by the NLRB, the Chelsea Roastery among them. The NLRB has substantiated a litany of complaints that the company illegally refused to bargain in good faith and retaliated against union organizers in the past 18 months.

A Starbucks in Penn Station. Aug. 3, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A decertification petition may also be dismissed based on meritorious unfair labor practice charges. The Chelsea Roastery was among the Starbucks locations included in a recent nationwide complaint over the company’s refusal to bargain. 

In testimony before the U.S. Senate labor committee on March 29, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz repeatedly denied any wrongdoing by the company.

“Sir, Starbucks coffee company, unequivocally — and let me set the tone for this very early on — has not broken the law,” he said in response to grilling by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) about the NLRB’s findings.

The Chelsea Roastery’s 103 workers voted on April 1, 2022 to approve the union in a 46-36 vote.

They went on strike for seven weeks starting on October 25 following staff sightings of bed bugs and mold in ice machines. State food safety inspectors searched the site and found “serious” and “insanitary deficiencies” that included not only mold but meal moths — prompting an agreement from the company to fix the issue.

Starbucks’ corporate management vowed to thoroughly clean the ice machines every week, not only at the Chelsea location, but at all flagship Roastery stores nationwide. 

Yet even after the inspectors’ visit, a company official denied that there had been mold in the ice machines, writing to the union: “There is no pest infestation or moldy ice at the Roastery — when the strike started or now — and we don’t understand why the union continues to assert falsely otherwise.”