The fight to unionize Starbucks stores around the country has gotten uglier. Since late last year, employee-led labor organizing efforts have resulted in hundreds of stores successfully forming unions. But this week, Starbucks workers are accusing the coffee chain of poorly delivering information on whether or not a new abortion benefit would apply to workers at unionized locations. It’s the latest in a series of allegations that Starbucks is conducting anti-organizing behavior in order to deter employees from joining unions across its almost 9,000 U.S. stores.
On June 15, Starbucks updated its medical coverage to allow employees who are enrolled in the company-sponsored healthcare plan to receive a reimbursement for abortion-related travel. The new benefit was introduced in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s Friday decision to overturn Roe v. Wade—the landmark 1973 ruling that made abortion a constitutional right.
But the official statement on the benefit did not clearly guarantee that it would be available to workers in a Starbucks union, some employees argue. Sara Kelly, the acting executive vice president of Starbucks’ Partner Resources, said that federal labor laws required collective bargaining to determine all wages, benefits, and working conditions for unionized workers. (Starbucks refers to their employees as ‘partners.’) “That means Starbucks cannot make promises” about any benefits for workers currently represented by unions, she stated.
Maggie Carter, a unionized barista working at a store in Knoxville, Tennessee, tells Bon Appétit that she’s still uncertain about the availability of the new benefit. Starbucks announced an intention to add the benefit in May, and Carter asked a manager a month ago about it. “I’m waiting on an answer,” she says.
Carter thinks Starbucks’ muddy communication, despite her requests for clarification, is an attempt to confuse and intimidate employees wanting to unionize. Whether the abortion-access benefit is available to unionized stores or not, “this shows what Starbucks is willing to leverage in this fight,” Carter says. “It makes me feel disgusted that they’d dangle abortion over people’s heads as if it’s a cat toy, when women are literally losing their rights to bodily autonomy. It just feels dystopian.”
When Bon Appétit reached out for comment, a Starbucks spokesperson said the abortion benefit is available to all employees: “Because this is an expansion of existing benefits, if you are a Starbucks partner with Starbucks healthcare benefits, the travel expense cost for these kinds of medical procedures is covered, regardless of union status.” The company did not address questions about other allegations, such as intimidating workers who are unionizing.
Still, if this updated benefit is available to all insured Starbucks workers, the company should make that clear to the unionized employees like Carter who are actively seeking that information, says Rebecca Givan, Ph.D., an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “I think they’re trying to burnish their progressive reputation, while scaring their employees away from unionizing by suggesting that none of their benefits are secure,” says Givan, who is not involved in the Starbucks unionization process.
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