U.S. senators ask Starbucks for information about union dealings

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FILE PHOTO: Starbucks employees who support unionization protest ahead of Investor Day, in Seattle

By Hilary Russ

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Four U.S. Senators have asked Starbucks to disclose how much the coffee chain has spent on lawyers and consulting fees to counter the growing union membership at hundreds of its locations in the United States. Senators Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal, all Democrats, and independent Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats, sent their request in a letter late Tuesday to Starbucks Corp Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz and its board of directors.

According to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters, they cited “reports that Starbucks is engaging in illegal union-busting tactics” and asked Starbucks to respond within a month.

“We appreciate every opportunity to share the facts and address inaccuracies about our company and our partners, and we are confident in our stringent compliance with federal labor law,” Starbucks said in response to the letter.

Employees at about 245 out of Starbucks’ nearly 9,000 company-owned U.S. locations have voted to unionize in just over the past year. The Senators also said in their letter that they want to see the guidance Starbucks gave to managers about how to deal with workers organizing unions and whether its spending expenditures to counter unions were listed in its tax filings. They also asked for a list of changes the Seattle-based chain has made to benefits for non-unionized employees. The company has been boosting benefits, including expanded coverage for adoption services on Monday that applied to all employees. But some other enhanced benefits, including hourly pay hikes, were given only to employees who are not in a union. Starbucks is “weaponizing benefits and wage increases to discourage workers from organizing,” Warren said in emailed remarks to Reuters. Bargaining is tentatively set to begin on various days this month at some stores.

August, the National Labor Relations Board accused Starbucks of illegally withholding raises from unionized workers.

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Starbucks said on a company blog that labor law requires it to negotiate any changes in benefits or working conditions with the union representing those employees.

(This story has been corrected to show some benefit enhancements given to all employees regardless of union status in eighth paragraph)

(Reporting by Hilary Russ)