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The Starbucks union is asking the coffee giant to extend wage increases and benefits to unionized stores

With wage increases set to begin Monday at Starbucks coffee shops in the US, labor organizers are calling on the coffee giant to extend the benefits to unionized stores without going through the bargaining process.

The request comes after Starbucks announced in May that it would raise workers’ wages and add other benefits, such as credit card cash, before later this year. But the Seattle-based coffee chain said it would not offer enhanced benefits to workers at its unionized stores because it must negotiate to make the changes.

In a letter sent by CNBC to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Workers United said the company can legally offer benefits to workers at unionized stores without bargaining, as long as the union agrees. The letter includes other company-wide benefits announced in recent months, including faster sick leave and medical travel reimbursement for employees seeking abortion or gender confirmation care.

“Workers United refuses to stand by when Starbucks cynically promises new benefits only to non-union workers and holds them back to our members,” Workers United President Lynne Fox told Schultze last month.

The letter states that the union is not waiving any of Starbucks’ other bargaining obligations under federal law.

About 200 Starbucks stores have unionized so far, while 40 have voted not to unionize, according to the National Labor Relations Board. Starbucks has about 9,000 locations in the US

When contacted about the union’s request, Starbucks stated a fact sheet on its website: “The law is clear: once a store is unionized, no changes in benefits are allowed without good faith collective bargaining.”

The company’s website says workers have access to Starbucks benefits in effect when the union petition was filed, but subsequent changes in wages, benefits and working conditions must be negotiated.

Labor lawyers say the case could end up before a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge.

“Once a union is certified, the employer is obligated to negotiate with that union before any changes are made to working conditions,” said Stephen Holroyd, an attorney at Jennings Sigmond who represents unions and has served on the NLRB.

But he said the union giving the green light without negotiating benefits changes the situation, and Starbucks can argue that it is withholding benefits because of its organizing campaign.

Daniel Sobol, an attorney at Stevens & Lee who has represented companies in union cases, said the NLRB and federal courts disagree on the issue.

“There is [benefit enhancements are] done solely to appease unionization, that could be a problem,” he said. But because employers adjust wages in an inflationary environment, he said Starbucks may not be forced to give raises to unionized workers.

Gabe Frumkin, an attorney for Starbucks Workers United, said it’s clear the benefits are being offered in response to union pressure. He said Workers United has filed two complaints related to Starbucks’ wage and benefits announcements against non-union stores and is considering more options.

Catherine Creighton, director of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University in Buffalo, New York, said the law requires companies to provide union notice of a new benefit and the opportunity to bargain. But he said, “if the union says it has no objection, the employer can absolutely give them that benefit.”

The wage increases that will take effect this week include at least a 5% increase or an increase to 5% above the market rate, whichever is higher, for workers with at least two years of experience. Employees with more than five years of experience get a raise of at least 7%, or 10% above the market rate, whichever is higher. The raises are in addition to previously announced increases this month that bring wages up to $15 an hour nationally. This increase is available to stores that did not start organizing before the announcement.

Starbucks has said it plans to spend $1 trillion on wage increases, improved training and store renovations in fiscal 2022. When Schultz returned for his third term as CEO, he canceled the company’s buyback program to invest in employees and stores.

The Starbucks union is asking the coffee giant to extend wage increases and benefits to unionized stores

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