An administrative law judge has ruled that coffee giant Starbucks illegally interfered with employees who formed a union at a Denver store. And a hearing is scheduled in March to hear complaints from employees at two other Colorado stores who voted to unionize.
The legal proceedings are the latest developments since employees at a store in Superior became the first of nine in Colorado to vote for a union, part of a cross-country effort to organize Starbucks workers. Employees at a Boulder store voted in January to unionize, according to Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union and the union that is representing the employees.
A ruling issued Monday by an administrative law judge of the National Labor Relations Board said Starbucks violated the National Labor Relations Act by interfering with employees organizing a union election at an east Denver store. Complaints against the company included firing one of the organizers, threatening employers for union activity and telling employees they wouldn’t be eligible for raises or promotions and would lose their benefits if they voted for a union.
The company was ordered to reinstate the employee who was fired, give him back pay, remove a warning notice from another employee’s file and post and distribute electronically a list of employees’ rights and a statement that it won’t repeat the violations.
“I am pleased that all of us were found to be as credible as we are, and I’m glad that the administrative law judge was able to see through some of the deception and misdirection that came from our leadership,” said Michaela Sellaro, a former shift supervisor at the East Colfax Avenue location.
Sellaro, who was given a warning of termination, quit in July 2022.
“Ultimately, the situation at the store was beginning to take a very serious toll on my mental health,” Sellaro said. “It was a tough decision to leave.”
Starbucks has encouraged its employees, which it calls partners, to exercise their right to vote in union elections, a spokesman for the Seattle-based company said in an email.
“We disagree with the decision and maintain that actions taken at our Colfax Avenue store in Denver were lawful and consistent with Starbucks policies. We are considering all options to obtain a full legal review of the matter as we work side-by-side with our partners to deliver the Starbucks experience and reinvent our company for the future,” the spokesman said.
More than 270 Starbucks locations across the country have voted to organize. Less than 3% of the nearly 10,000 company-operated stores in the U.S. are represented by a union.
The movement to unionize stores took off after one in Buffalo, N.Y., became the first to organize in 2021. Starbucks has said the company and its employees are better together without a union, but will respect the legal process and bargain in good faith with union members.
However, a number of complaints alleging that Starbucks has interfered with organizing has been filed with the National Labor Relations Board. The company, in turn, has filed charges against the union, National Public Radio reported in December.
Starbucks is stalling contract negotiations and “continues to use whatever delay tactics they can think of to prevent workers from having a real voice and say in the company,” a union spokesman said in an email. The Seattle region of the NLRB has issued a complaint against Starbucks, alleging the company has failed to bargain in good faith with at least 21 stores across the Northwest, the union said.
A hearing is set for March 14 before an administrative law judge in Denver on complaints lodged by union members at a store in Colorado Springs and in downtown Denver. Employees said they were threatened for union activity, told they would never get better benefits than those at non-union stores and would have to negotiate the ability to receive digital tips that are available at non-union workplaces.
Ryan Dinaro was fired by the Denver Starbucks in June 2022. He was told he was fired for being late twice in six months, but believes his organizing activities were the reason. Other employees at the store were fired leading up to and just after the successful union vote, he added.
Although he has a new job, Dinaro said he would return to Starbucks if he’s reinstated.
“They fired me illegally to break the union and stop the contract from being written,” Dinaro said. “At this point, it’s almost my civic duty to come back and ensure that they don’t just break the law and get away with it.”