Starbucks’ interim CEO Howard Schultz said at a weekly meeting of store managers on Monday that the benefits he was considering extending to non-union employees would not immediately apply to the company’s new union workers.
The statement came, just one week after Schultz’s third round as CEO, after workers in at least 16 company-owned stores had voted to join unions in the past six months, although the National Labor Relations Board has yet to ratify all the results.
Since Mr. Schultz’s return as CEO, Starbucks has fired at least three union supporters, whose spokesperson said they violated company policies. Mr. Schultz has also suspended share buybacks until the company has “the opportunity to invest more in our partners and stores,” he said in a letter to employees on Sunday, and has held meetings with employees in several cities to put forward their ideas on improving the company.
Two appearances became controversial when Mr. Schultz confronted pro-union employees.
A Starbucks spokesperson said comments on the benefits at the meeting on Monday arose during a question-and-answer session, when Mr. Schultz was asked how the new benefits the company was considering might fit into the union’s campaign.
Paraphrasing Mr. Schultz, the spokesperson said the CEO responded that when offering a benefit, “we are not permitted by law to unilaterally grant this benefit to stores that voted for union during a collective bargaining procedure.”
The speaker said the topic of benefits arose from employee input in recent sessions with Mr. Schultz, and that the Starbucks chief did not provide examples of benefits he was considering or when they might be offered.
The Wall Street Journal reported the comments earlier on Wednesday.
Labor law experts said companies were allowed to discuss the difference in benefits union and nonunion employees receive, but they could not make an tacit promise that employees would receive better benefits if they chose not to join unions.
Matthew Boddy, a former Labor Council attorney who studies law at St. Louis University, said the comments could be interpreted as undermining the so-called laboratory conditions required for upcoming union elections if they were public, but not necessarily if they were. It is expected to remain confidential. Mr. Bode said the comments remain evidence of bad faith bargaining intent by seeking to give union employees a worse deal than non-union employees, which is also considered unfair labor practice.
Wilma Lippmann, a former chair of the National Labor Relations Board, said the timing of the potential benefits is questionable, because it is unclear whether they would have been added had it not been for the union campaign.
While it is difficult to know for sure whether Mr. Schultz has crossed the legal limit without reviewing his careful comments, which were not provided by the company, the spokesperson said Mr. Schultz was only stating what the law required.
Mr. Schultz was outspoken in his opposition to the union. In his letter on Sunday, he noted that many of the employees who supported unions were “complicit with outside union forces” and wrote that he did not believe that “conflict, division, and discord — which have been central to union organizing — benefit Starbucks or our partners.”
He added that less than 1 percent of the more than 200,000 Starbucks employees in the United States voted to join unions, and nearly 65 percent of employees eligible to vote in union elections did not participate.