Between 2004 and 2007, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) tried to organize employees at four Starbucks stores in New York City. The IWW made statements to the media and staged protests. Believing that several actions that Starbucks managers took in this period were improper or illegal, the IWW took three of them to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which backed the union.
What happened. The biggest issue revolved around union buttons. Starbucks management frequently handed out buttons for employees to wear on their uniforms that advertised various store products. The IWW encouraged the employees who supported its organizing efforts to respond in kind—by adding between several and many IWW buttons to the others displayed on their uniforms. Starbucks ordered employees to wear only one union button.
The other two issues concerned two employees, union supporters, whom Starbucks had terminated during the organization effort. When the NLRB had only two members, they found the one-button rule and both terminations to be unfair labor practices. A larger board needed to affirm those decisions, and in 2010, Starbucks appealed them to the 2nd Circuit, which covers Connecticut, New York, and Vermont.
What the court said. Turning first to the one-button rule, appellate judges found it reasonable, given that Starbucks uses its own buttons for advertising purposes. We can guess that in a work environment where employees’ only buttons were for union support, employers would have little reason to restrict them to just one.
But at Starbucks, judges noted, one employee wore eight union buttons, distributed among her pants, shirt, hat, and apron. Judges wrote, “Wearing such a large number of union buttons would risk serious dilution of the information contained on Starbucks’ buttons, and the company has [quoting from an earlier case ruling] a ‘legitimate recognized managerial interest’ in preventing its employees from doing so.”
One of the employees had been terminated for uttering obscenities during an argument in the store, in front of customers. While the NLRB protects employees who become very angry in the workplace and may insult managers, that should not be the case when customers are present, judges said. And they found that the other employee was fired primarily for refusing to work enough hours at his store, not for supporting the union organizing campaign. NLRB v. Starbucks Corp., U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, Nos. 10-3511-ag, 10-3783-ag(XAP) (2012).
Point to remember: During a Democratic administration, NLRB’s rulings are likely to be overturned in the courts if they go too far to advantage unions.