By Katie Anderson  |  Buffalo Business First  |  Oct 27, 2021, 6:00am EDT

How employers can avoid the unionizing talks Starbucks is facing

The attempt to unionize at local Starbucks locations has some employers wondering if their workforce could be next.

Last month, Starbucks employees at Western New York stores formed a committee, Starbucks Workers United, and sent a letter to the company’s president and CEO Kevin Johnson, explaining that they planned to form a union. Employees at multiple local stores filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board to hold union elections. If successful, it would be the first union formed in Starbucks history.

A local labor and employment attorney said employers can learn from the situation by addressing employee concerns sooner.

“I think a lot of employees feel that they don’t have control, that they’re being overworked and that they’re not valued,” said Jim Grasso, partner, Phillips Lytle LLP. “They feel taken for granted. Generally, employees don’t attempt to form a union unless there are some issues going on there.”

Grasso said Starbucks isn’t the only company with labor issues unfolding locally — understaffed work conditions have been cited with Mercy Hospital of Buffalo’s strike.

“There hasn’t been a strike like that in 30 years,” he said. “It’s really about staffing issues. Labor is being more assertive because the power and leverage has shifted toward employees. Having gone through the pandemic and going through all that stress, employees feel it’s worth having better work environments.”

Especially in the service industry, Grasso said, customers see signs in storefronts requesting patience and understanding for understaffed locations.

“Certainly, all the food service stores are watching this,” he said. “Places like McDonald’s and other fast-food companies are watching the unionizing efforts to see if it’s something viable in their restaurants.”

Once it’s decided if local Starbucks employees will vote store by store or altogether, an election to unionize will take place. Typically, supervisors and managers are not allowed to take part in the vote. The decision is made by the majority of the people who show up to vote. For example, if 100 workers are eligible to vote but only 20 do, they make the decision. If the majority votes for a union, that union would represent all employees, Grasso said.

“The concern is that if these stores unionize, it will spread,” Grasso said. “It will be national news, and it will have ripple effects.”

Starbucks chose to send top executives to Buffalo to hold listening sessions and talk to the employees. A better approach could be anticipating problems earlier, or addressing them immediately, Grasso said.

Especially in a prolonged labor shortage, employers should constantly communicate that they’re doing what they can to improve working and staffing conditions. Employers may find “update sessions” to hear employee concerns beneficial during limited staffing.

“Communicating with employees is absolutely essential, so they know what’s going on and so they feel invested in the company,” he said.

Sometimes, Grasso said, bringing in top executives communicates that the company is taking employee concerns seriously. Other times it’s better to have local management carry the message.

“Companies, generally, like the local management to handle those things because there’s sometimes a lack of trust from top executives who aren’t as well known,” Grasso said. “I don’t think there’s a one-size fits all in responding to a unionizing petition.”