BUFFALO — During her decade-plus at Starbucks, Michelle Eisen has endured her share of workplace stress. She points to the company’s increased use of productivity goals, inadequate attention to training and periods of understaffing or high turnover.
But she had never encountered a change that the company made after workers at her store and two other Buffalo-area locations filed for a union election in late August: two additional “support managers” from out of state, who often work on the floor with the baristas and who, according to Ms. Eisen, have created unease.
“For a lot of newer baristas, it’s an imposing force,” Ms. Eisen said. “It is not an easy job. It should not be complicated further by feeling like you’re having everything you’re doing or saying watched and listened to.”
Workers and organizers involved in the unionization effort say the imported managers are part of a counteroffensive by the company intended to intimidate workers, disrupt normal operations and undermine support for the union.
Starbucks says the additional managers, along with an increase in the number of workers in stores and the arrival of a top corporate executive from out of town, are standard company practices. It says the changes, which also include temporarily shutting down stores in the area, are intended to help improve training and staffing — longstanding issues — and that they are a response not to the union campaign but to input the company solicited from employees.
“The listening sessions led to requests from partners that resulted in those actions,” said Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesman. “It’s not a decision where our leadership came in and said, ‘We’re going to do this and this.’ We listened, heard their concerns.”
None of the nearly 9,000 corporate-owned Starbucks locations in the country are unionized. The prospect that workers there could form a union appears to reflect a recent increase in labor activism nationwide, including strikes across a variety of industries.
According to the National Labor Relations Board, union elections are supposed to be conducted under “laboratory conditions,” in which workers can vote in an environment free of intimidation, in an election process that is not controlled by the employer.
Former labor board officials say the company’s actions could cause an election to be set aside on these grounds should the union lose.
“You could say it’s part of an overall series of events that seems to create a tendency that people would be chilled or inhibited,” said Wilma B. Liebman, a chairwoman of the board during the Obama administration.
A labor board official recently recommended that a union election at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama be overturned for similar reasons, but Mr. Borges said Starbucks did not believe anything it had done would warrant overturning an election.
Starbucks has faced union campaigns before, including efforts in the early 2000s in New York City and in 2019 in Philadelphia, where the firing of two employees involved in union organizing was deemed unlawful by a labor board judge. Starbucks has appealed the ruling.
Though none of the campaigns were successful in this country, a Starbucks-owned store in Canada recently unionized, and some stores owned by other companies that have licensing agreements with Starbucks are unionized.
Many of the ways Starbucks has responded in Buffalo — where union backers seek to become part of Workers United, an affiliate of the giant Service Employees International Union — are typical of employers. The measures include holding meetings with employees in which company officials question the need for a third party to represent them.
Starbucks is also seeking to persuade the labor board to require that workers at all 20 Buffalo-area stores take part in the election, rather than allow stores to vote individually, arguing that employees can spend time at multiple locations. (Union organizers typically favor voting in smaller units to increase the chance of gaining a foothold in at least some locations.) The board is likely to rule on this question and set an election date in the coming weeks.
But some of the company’s actions during the union campaign are unorthodox, according to labor law experts. “A huge increase in staffing, shutting down stores, it’s all unusual,” said Matthew Bodie, a law professor at St. Louis University who is a former labor board attorney.
A recent visit to a Starbucks near the airport, where workers have filed for a union election, turned up at least nine baristas behind the counter but only a handful of customers.
“It’s insane,” said Alexis Rizzo, a longtime Starbucks employee who has been a leader of the organizing campaign at the store. “Even if you’re just trying to run to the back to grab a gallon of milk, you now have to run an obstacle course to fit between all the folks who have no real reason to be there.”
Ms. Rizzo said the number of employees in the store at once — which she said had run into the teens — made those who predate the union election filing feel outnumbered and demoralized. “It’s intimidating,” she said. “You go to work and it’s just you and 10 people you don’t know.”
Starbucks said the additional personnel were intended to help the store after an uptick in workers who were out sick.
Some of the additional employees have come to the airport location from a nearby store that Starbucks recently turned into a training facility. That store does not have an election petition pending, but many of its workers have pledged support for the union effort, and some feel separated and disoriented as well.
“Initially, people thought our store could use a little reset,” said Colin Cochran, a pro-union employee at the store that was turned into a training facility, who has mostly been assigned to other locations since then. “As it’s dragged out and we’re getting sent to more and more other stores, it’s been frustrating. We want to see each other again.”
Workers said their anxiety had been heightened by the sudden appearance of new managers and company officials from out of town.
In a video of a meeting in September, a district manager in Arizona tells co-workers that the company has asked her to spend time in Buffalo over the next 90 days. “There’s a huge task force out there that’s trying to fix the problem because if Buffalo, N.Y., gets unionized, it will be the first market in Starbucks history,” the district manager says in the video, provided by a person at the meeting and viewed by The New York Times. When someone asks if the task force is a “last-ditch effort to try and stop it,” the district manager responds, “Yeah, we’re going to save it.”
Will Westlake, a barista in a Buffalo suburb called Hamburg, where workers have also filed for a union election, said a store log showed that several company officials from outside the Buffalo area had been to the store during the past six weeks. Included were at least seven visits from Rossann Williams, Starbucks’ president of retail for North America.
The officials sometimes work on laptops facing the baristas, sometimes join them behind the bar to work and inquire about the store, and sometimes perform menial tasks like cleaning the bathroom, Mr. Westlake said. He said that many of his co-workers felt intimidated by these officials and that he found the presence of Ms. Williams “surreal.”
Starbucks said that many of the officials were regional leaders and coaches who were helping to solve operational issues and remodel stores, and that they were part of a companywide effort dating to May, when Covid-19 infection rates declined and stores across the country got busier.
“The resurgence of business came so fast we were not prepared,” Ms. Williams said in an interview.
The company says that it has added staffing in a number of cities beyond Buffalo, especially in the Midwest and the Mountain West, and that it brought on an additional recruiter in each of its 12 regions in the spring to expedite hiring. It said it had turned about 40 stores around the country into temporary training facilities.
On a Saturday in October, Ms. Williams visited the training store, saying little as she stood behind a group of workers while a trainer instructed them at the bar.
Later, seated outside the store to discuss her work in Buffalo, she waved off the idea that temporarily shutting down a store or making other significant changes might compromise the union election’s laboratory conditions.
“If I went to a market and saw the condition some of these stores are in, and I didn’t do anything about it, it would be so against my job,” she said. “There’s no way I could come here and say I’m not going to do anything.”