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Starbucks violated the National Labor Relations Act at multiple St. Louis stores

People hold signs advocating for unionized Starbucks workers in St. Louis.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Unionized Starbucks workers and their supporters gather at the location on Kingshighway near Chippewa for a strike on June 26. A NLRB administrative law judge found the company violated multiple parts of the National Labor Relations Act this week.

Starbucks has violated multiple parts of the National Labor Relations Act at stores in the St. Louis region, a National Labor Relations administrative law judge found this week.

Judge Robert A. Ringler found the Seattle-based coffee chain broke the law by punishing workers who wore Starbucks Workers United T-shirts.

“We knew what the outcome was going to be, at least all the (unfair labor practices) at my store of the stuff that we filed,” said Jon Gamache, a barista at the Starbucks at Lindbergh and Clayton. “It was egregious, it was black-and-white illegal.”

Gamache was among a few workers at the west St. Louis County location who received written warnings from the company for violating the dress code because they were wearing shirts with the union logo on them. Alex Barge, another barista at that Starbucks location, was also written up for wearing her union shirt.

“Through the time they were giving us this discipline we were just constantly saying: ‘This is illegal. We have a legal right to wear a union T-shirt in the store. You shouldn’t be doing this,’” she said. “So it’s very gratifying to see that the judge agreed with us.”

Starbucks also used these violations as part of their basis to fire shift supervisor Bradley Rohlf last October.

“It was a surprise, but it wasn’t unexpected,” Rohlf said. “We knew that Starbucks had terminated people before.”

Ringler found these disciplinary actions from Starbucks broke the law and ordered the company to stop disparately enforcing its dress code policy and to fully reinstate Rohlf and to “make (him) whole for any loss of earnings and other benefits suffered as a result of the discrimination against him.”

“You always wish things could be a little faster, but it’s nice to at least hear a positive result a little under a year from when I was initially terminated,” Rohlf said.

The job loss was challenging for Rohlf, who said he found it difficult to secure work similar to his position at Starbucks. He said he had decided to return to the coffee chain for its flexibility because he also runs a small theater nonprofit.

“Finding temporary work in the meantime that would fit that schedule, because I already have a full schedule of responsibilities around that, proved to be really difficult,” Rohlf said.

Other workers at the Starbucks location in west St. Louis County are happy for Rohlf to return and to have clear recognition of the company’s unfair labor practices, Barge said.

“We are on the right side of the law,” she said. “Being able to show people this kind of concrete evidence that Starbucks has been retaliating against us for unionizing and being so aggressive about it will be helpful for us.”

Gamache agrees.

“I’ve got this (decision) saved on my phone,” he said. “I can just pull it up and say, ‘Look, we took you to court over this and you lost.’”

Beyond discipline for wearing union shirts, Starbucks also violated the law by threatening employees that they would lose their scheduled raises, benefits increases and access to management because of their union activities.

“Something that we’ve been saying from very early on is notice the ways Starbucks is going after trans employees in particular,” Gamache said. “Saying ‘Oh, we know that you need this benefit that we offer, and you could lose that if you unionize.’”

At another St. Louis Starbucks location, Ringler found the company threatened a trans employee that health insurance resources would no longer be available if the store unionized.

“We disagree with the administrative law judge’s recommendations in this matter and are exploring options for further legal review,” Starbucks said in a statement.

The judge in this case did not issue recommendations, but instead ordered the company to cease their unlawful conduct, which also included interfering with employees' right to organize.

To Rohlf, this decision against Starbucks comes at an important moment for organized labor in the country. Unions representing Hollywood writers and actors, autoworkers, nurses and others are all pushing for better working conditions.

“When companies are making record profits, it means they’re not sharing that with their employees,” he said. “There’s clearly a groundswell among workers saying, ‘Hey, something is not right in the system.’”

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.