A judge ruled that former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz violated federal labor law when he told a Belmont Shore barista last year that they should go work elsewhere after the employee questioned the company’s response to union organizing across the country.
The comment was made during a “collaboration session” near Long Beach Airport held in April 2022 that was meant to “get underneath the challenges in the company that need to be addressed,” according to a letter from Schultz that was published shortly after the meeting.
Administrative Law Judge Brian Gee ruled Friday that at the meeting, Schultz illegally threatened an employee when he told them, “If you’re not happy at Starbucks, you can go work for another company.”
That employee was Madison Hall, who was a Starbucks barista at the Belmont Shore store at the time. During the meeting, which was attended by Starbucks’ upper-level management including Schultz, Hall made several comments related to unionizing and said the company should engage in collective bargaining, sign fair labor practices and become the “first company in the industry to support worker’s right to organize,” according to the ruling.
Hall also questioned why the company had not addressed the unfair labor practice charges that had been filed at the time related to union-busting. No other employees at the meeting mentioned union organizing in their comments.
According to the filing, Schultz responded to Hall by saying that he did not attend the meeting to discuss the union issue and then made the illegal comment to Hall.
Gee said, “Schultz’ invitation to quit was far more than a suggestion as to how Hall could be a happier person—rather, it was a chilling admonition that Hall’s exercise of protected speech was incompatible with continued employment at Starbucks,” and ruled that it was in violation of the National Labor Relations Act.
At the time of the meeting, Hall told the Long Beach Post that Schultz spoke in a “very condescending” tone and manner after Hall brought up union-related issues.
“I felt very disrespected,” Hall said, adding that Schultz repeatedly cut the employee off during the meeting, which Hall posted on social media.
The Belmont Shore store petitioned to unionize shortly after the April meeting, joining two other local stores—one in Long Beach and one in Lakewood—in the nationwide movement.
Both the Long Beach and Lakewood stores successfully voted to unionize in May 2022 and are part of a collective of more than 360 Starbucks locations that have voted to do so since late 2021. In contract bargaining, unionized stores are asking for several improvements to their working conditions, including organizing rights, health and safety protocols and scheduling benefits, among other requests listed on the Starbucks Workers United website.
The Belmont Shore store lost its union election last year, according to Josie Serrano, a lead organizer at the Long Beach store on Redondo Avenue and Seventh Street, and Hall left the company shortly after in July 2022.
“What workers need is for Starbucks to come to the bargaining table and to negotiate in good faith — it’s time for Starbucks to put an end to their ongoing pattern of threatening and intimidating workers,” Hall said in a statement.
Starbucks did not acknowledge the portion of the ruling pertaining to Schultz’s comments, but, in a statement, it applauded Gee for finding the April 2022 listening sessions were “both lawful and rooted in our past practices.”
The comment referred to the judge, in the same ruling, dismissing a claim that Starbucks interrogated workers and tried to single out employees at the session in an activity where they were asked to write their concerns on Post-it notes and place stickers next to statements they agreed with, which included improving working conditions and statements about the Union.
In the ruling, Gee said that the activity was not conducted in a way where it was implied that Starbucks was seeking to find out about an employee’s sentiment towards unionization.
This is not the first time an NLRB judge has ruled that the coffee giant broke federal labor law. Last month, in a nationwide ruling, a judge found that Starbucks boosted wages and benefits only for workers in non-unionized stores across the U.S. last year.
The benefits for non-unionized workers included lifting wages to at least $15 an hour and credit card tipping, benefits that began six months after stores across the country began unionizing. The company was ordered to compensate thousands of unionized workers for the lost wages and benefits they were denied.
In the Long Beach ruling, Gee ordered that Starbucks stores in the area that had an employee present at the collaboration session must post copies of a notice stating that the company “will not threaten or impliedly threatening employees by inviting them to quit because they engaged in union or other protected concerted activities.”
“Together, these decisions show that Starbucks’ historic anti-union campaign was directed from the top of the company, nationally coordinated, and designed to discourage workers from unionizing in multiple devastating ways,” Starbucks Workers United said in a news release.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include statements from Starbucks, Starbucks Workers United and Hall.