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Federal Officials Sue Starbucks To Reinstate Fired Union Activists

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Officials with the National Labor Relations Board have gone to federal court in an effort to get three Starbucks workers who are union activists back on the job.

A regional director for the board in Arizona filed a petition for a temporary injunction on Friday, saying Starbucks retaliated against three members of a union organizing committee. Two of the workers were fired and the third was put on unpaid leave, according to the filing.

The board official, Cornele Overstreet, asked the court to reinstate the workers at Starbucks with their normal work hours and their disciplinary records expunged.

Oversreet also asked that a high-ranking Starbucks official be required to read the court order aloud in the presence of a board official, and that a video recording of the reading be made available to Starbucks workers around the country.

The board can go to federal court seeking such an injunction when it believes workers have been threatened during an organizing campaign, and that such threats could lead to “irreparable harm” if they aren’t stopped.

In this case, Overstreet argues that Starbucks’ actions have led to an atmosphere of retaliation, and that workers could “irreversibly lose” the board’s protections if something isn’t done quickly.

If granted, such an injunction would mark a significant win for Workers United, the union that’s been organizing Starbucks stores around the country since last year. The union has accused Starbucks of retaliating against a number of union activists in order to cool the organizing campaign. In this case, labor board officials found merit in the allegations.

“In seeking an injunction, the labor board argues that Starbucks’ actions have led to an atmosphere of retaliation.”

Starbucks has maintained that it was justified in disciplining the Arizona workers.

“We wholly disagree with the claims by the [labor board] in this complaint. These partners were terminated because they violated our established policies,” a Starbucks spokesperson said in a statement. “A partner’s interest in union representation does not exempt them from the standards we’ve put in place to protect partners, customers, and the communities that we serve.”

Shortly before Overstreet sought the injunction in federal court, board officials filed a separate complaint against Starbucks at the NLRB on Friday. That complaint was related to a group of Memphis, Tennessee, workers who were terminated, known as the Memphis 7.

Starbucks fired those workers in February after a local television station conducted an in-store interview with them about the organizing effort. Starbucks said the workers violated company policy by allowing nonemployees into the store while it was closed, among other alleged infractions.

But a regional director for the board in New Orleans, Kathleen McKinney, said Starbucks fired the seven employees because they “assisted the Union and engaged in concerted activities” that are protected under labor law. She also said managers “confiscated and removed pro-union materials from the community bulletin board” at the store.

McKinney said Starbucks should have to make the fired workers “whole,” including by “reimbursing them for all consequential harm they incurred as a result of [Starbucks’] unlawful conduct.”

The charge related to the Memphis workers would be litigated within the NLRB. But it’s still possible board officials will go to federal court seeking an injunction like the one for the workers in Arizona.

Starbucks has roughly 9,000 corporate-owned stores in the U.S., all of which were nonunion until Workers United began organizing last year. So far 26 stores have voted to unionize, and many more have petitioned the labor board to hold elections.

This story has been updated with comment from Starbucks.

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