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Starbucks threatened to deny abortion travel benefits for workers seeking to unionize, judge says

A month after the U.S. Supreme Court voided the constitutional right to abortion in 2022, Starbucks told workers trying to unionize in Wisconsin that they risked losing coverage of travel costs for the procedure.

The coffee giant’s threat to deny the benefit — Starbucks was amongthe first to add travel costs for the procedure to employee perks after the high court’s leaked ruling — is among more than two dozen violations of federal labor law by Starbucks in its nearly two-year battle with unionizing workers, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The company is waging “one of the most aggressive, anti-union campaigns in decades,” said Steven Greenhouse, a senior fellow at progressive think tank The Century Foundation and former longtime labor reporter with the New York Times, citing the findings by the NLRB that Starbucks had illegally fired and otherwise retaliating against unionizing workers.

Since Starbucks workers started organizing in 2021, NLRB judges for the agency have issued more than 30 rulings finding that Starbucks broke the law.

Starbucks has steadfastly denied violating labor laws and rejects claims that it is deliberately impeding workers’ efforts to organize. It also contends that a union would hinder managers’ relations with employees.

“As a company, we believe that our direct relationship as partners is core to the culture and experiences we create in our stores,” the company told CBS MoneyWatch. “We recognize that a subset of partners feel differently — and we respect their right to organize, engage in lawful union activities and bargain collectively without fear of reprisal or retaliation.”

Abortion travel benefit

A NLRB judge found last week that, in July of 2022, a Starbucks manager told workers at a shop in West Allis, a suburb of Milwaukee, that they would lose the abortion travel reimbursement if they voted to form a union.

The National Labor Relations Act offers private-sector workers the right to seek better working conditions without fear of retaliation, according to the NLRB, the agency in charge of enforcing the law, which was enacted in 1935 under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The law stipulates that management can’t take actions to discourage workers from exercising their right to vote, with administrative law judge Charles Muhl determining Starbucks’ threat to be an illegal form of intimidation. A Starbucks district manager illegally told employees that they wouldn’t get the abortion travel benefit because they were engaged in labor activity, according to thedecisionby Muhl.

The benefit extends to all Starbucks workers regardless of union status, Starbucks told CBS MoneyWatch in an email. The company is reviewing Muhl’s decision and considering possible next steps, the spokesperson added.

“These are folks that are making an average of $17 an hour, they can’t easily hop on a plane and go to another state for health care or an abortion,” said a spokesperson for Starbucks Workers United, the union organizing Starbucks workers.

The ruling follows anotherNLRB decision in September that found Starbucks violated labor laws in hiking wages and benefits nationwide only for employees in non-union stores.

The message from Starbucks is “we’re going to provide certain raises and benefits to workers at non-union stores, like credit card tipping, which can increase pay by four to five dollars an hour,” said Greenhouse, a longtime New York Times reporter and author of “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present and Future American Labor.”

Union stores are getting told, “we can’t give you these nice things because we have to negotiate, and can’t force it down your throat unilaterally,” he added.

“Many union members at Starbucks and labor experts I speak to say Starbucks is intent on delaying, delaying and delaying and never reaching a first contract to show workers unionizing is ineffective and doesn’t pay off,” Greenhouse said. “To the union’s members, it is important to win a first contract to improve their lives, improve their pay and show the world there are real benefits.”

Starbucks maintains it has always been willing to negotiate in good faith.

Starbucks earlier this month petitioned the Supreme Court, requesting it raise standards that must be met for the NLRB to obtain federal court injunctions even as the agency is moving ahead with related administrative cases.

At issue are 10(j) injunctions, which give the NLRB a means of seeking relief from a federal court in response to damage from alleged labor law violations that can’t be resolved by a pending administrative judge’s decision.

“The NLRB continues to use the federal courts — which are split — to obtain remedies before the merits of the case are fully evaluated,” Starbucks stated in an October 3 post on its site.

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