05:17 - Source: CNN
Starbucks workers strike over alleged restrictions on LGBTQ decorations
New York CNN  — 

Starbucks will clarify its policy on Pride decorations following criticism and strikes at unionized stores.

“We intend to issue clearer centralized guidelines… for in-store visual displays and decorations that will continue to represent inclusivity and our brand,” Sara Trilling, president of Starbucks North America, wrote in an open letter Monday. “Additionally, we will continue to provide the flexibility needed so that our stores reflect the communities they serve.”

The company said it will lean on resources like its Period Planning Kit and its Siren’s Eye program, which include seasonal signage and display guidelines that are distributed across stores several times a year, to help.

Earlier this month, Starbucks Workers United, the union representing organized stores, claimed that Starbucks has restricted decorations celebrating Pride Month in locations in multiple states. Starbucks, in turn, forcefully denied this claim.

“I want to reiterate that there has been no change to any of our policies as it relates to our inclusive store environments, our company culture, and the benefits we offer our partners,” Trilling wrote in Monday’s letter. Since 2013, Starbucks has offered health coverage for gender affirming surgery.

Matt Mills McKnight/Reuters
Starbucks workers attend a rally outside the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Seattle, Washington, on June 23, 2023.

Tensions over Starbucks’ Pride decorations policy escalated on Friday, when members of the union started a days-long “unfair labor practice strike against Starbucks’ treatment of LGBTQIA+ workers,” as well as its “union-busting campaign,” in the words of the union. Organizers are calling for more consistent hours and gender neutral bathrooms, among other things.

As of Monday, over 60 Starbucks locations in 17 states went on strike, the union said. By the end of the week it expects over 150 stores to have gone on strike.

Starbucks (SBUX), which has been engaging in an aggressive battle against the union over the past year and a half, said it has filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board over claims the union has made.

In the complaints, provided to CNN by Starbucks, the coffee company said that “the union and its agents have engaged in a smear campaign that includes deliberate misrepresentations to Starbucks partners,” adding, among other things, that the union has been “making deliberate misrepresentations that include maliciously and recklessly false statements about Starbucks longstanding support of Pride Month and decorations in its stores.”

When the union first made claims that Starbucks had been limiting Pride decorations in stores, the company said that store leaders are able to decorate stores as they wish for Pride and other heritage months, as long as those decorations adhere to safety guidelines.

“We unwaveringly support the LGBTQIA2+ community,” a spokesperson said at the time, adding, “We’re deeply concerned by false information that is being spread.” The union responded on Twitter that the company’s “own responses have not been consistent” based on internal documents and testimonies from store managers.

The union responds

Starbucks Workers United said in a statement Tuesday that the recent NLRB charges were “nothing more than a public relations stunt meant to distract from Starbucks’ own actions,” adding, “While attacking the union that represents its own workers, Starbucks has now changed its policies in response to worker actions.” The union said it is confident that the charges will be dismissed.

In addition, the union said that “while we are glad Starbucks is finally reconsidering its position on pride decorations, Starbucks continues to ignore that they are legally required to bargain with union workers,” adding “If Starbucks truly wants to be an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community, they will actually listen to their queer workers by coming to the bargaining table to negotiate in good faith.”

Since the first Starbucks store voted to unionize in late 2021 through mid-June of this year, over 300 stores have voted to unionize and been certified by the NLRB, which has also certified 65 stores voting against the union. So far, a contract has not yet been negotiated, with each side blaming the other for the delay.

Matt Mills McKnight/Reuters
Starbucks workers outside of the Starbucks Reserve Roastery.

There are roughly 9,300 company-operated US Starbucks stores in the United States, so unionized locations are relatively few, at this point. But their victories have been hard won.

NLRB administrative law judge Michael Rosas wrote in March that Starbucks displayed “egregious and widespread misconduct” in its dealings with employees involved in efforts to unionize Buffalo, New York, stores, including the first location to unionize. Starbucks repeatedly sent high-level executives into Buffalo-area stores in a “relentless” effort, the judge wrote, which “likely left a lasting impact as to the importance of voting against representation.”

Starbucks said in a statement at the time of Rosas’ order that it is “considering all options to obtain further legal review,” adding that “we believe the decision and the remedies ordered are inappropriate.”

Hundreds of charges have been lodged with the NLRB over Starbucks’ practices. And some shareholders want answers.

During the company’s annual shareholder meeting in March, investors approved a proposal to have the board of directors “commission and oversee an independent, third-party assessment of Starbucks’ adherence to its stated commitment to workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining rights.”

The proposal pointed to allegations that the company intimidated workers and retaliated against them in its battle against the union, saying that the reports put the company at reputational and legal risk.

The company had previously recommended that shareholders vote against the proposal, saying that it has already started working on a human rights review and maintaining that it has been acting legally.

— CNN’s Jordan Valinsky contributed to this report.