Starbucks sows doubt about abortion, gender-affirming healthcare as union-busting tactic

Photo: Abortion rights protest in Phoenix where Starbucks worker organizers addressed the crowd.

In the wake of the overturning of Roe v Wade, Starbucks released a letter to partners announcing that employees enrolled in Starbucks healthcare plans will receive a medical travel reimbursement benefit to access an abortion. Part of this announcement includes an anti-union threat veiled as a clarification about how this would apply to stores where workers have union representation. For unionized stores, “Starbucks cannot make promises or guarantees about any benefits. For example, even if we were to offer a certain benefit at the bargaining table, a union could decide to exchange it for something else. Simply put, it’s difficult to predict the outcome of negotiations, and each store’s negotiation may look different.”

Starbucks Workers United filed a complaint with National Labor Relations Board accusing Starbucks of “threatening employees with loss of benefits” including “loss of gender-affirming health care for transgender employees.” These are classic union-busting tactics, attempting to strike fear in workers interested in unionizing, or turn workers against their unions in stores where they already have unionized.

In order to muddy the waters and sow doubt among workers, Starbucks gives statements that imply unionized stores could lose benefits. But in order for that to happen, the bargaining team, who are workers nominated and elected by workers to represent their union, would have to negotiate those benefits away. Under capitalism, it is true that unions are sometimes forced by employers to make deals that are not optimal. However in practice, unions are formed under conditions of labor militancy, where labor has the most leverage to ensure this rarely happens, as benefits are one of the main reasons why workers feel the need to unionize in the first place.

What actually happens, according to the Economic Policy Institute, is that workers get a 10% pay raise on average, more healthcare benefits, paid sick and family leave, improved workplace safety, consistent work schedules, and broader community benefits in places with high union density. Starbucks is merely attempting to turn workers against their union by offering a concession based on the current political moment to the non-unionized stores, which is unfortunately typical in the union-busting playbook.

Nothing in the law prevents Starbucks from offering these benefits to unionized stores, they simply choose not to. Laila Dalton, a lead organizer with Starbucks Workers United in Phoenix, Arizona, spoke at an abortion rights rally: “Companies [like Starbucks] are weaponizing the loss of our rights and using it as a tool to manipulate us. It’s outrageous for Starbucks to say that they will only pay travel expenses for an abortion to only non-unionized stores.”

The reality for Starbucks workers is that they don’t even qualify for healthcare benefits unless they work at least 20 hours a week. If the store manager cuts their hours, or rearranges their schedule in a way that forces the worker to work less than 20 hours, they will lose their benefits. This has been happening to workers in retaliation for their unionizing. The benefits are wielded both as a carrot that entices workers, and a stick that can be used to punish workers. This is why policies like Medicare for All are critical for ensuring healthcare is guaranteed and cannot be wielded by companies as leverage over workers.

Empty gestures amidst union-busting

Starbucks has tried to promote itself as a company with “progressive values,” particularly on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. They call their employees “partners.” They promote so-called diversity and inclusivity. But these are simply calculations to improve company profits by creating a false public image. When these “values” clash with the need to constantly increase profits, profits are always the priority. 

Companies fight unions because providing more pay and benefits to workers cuts into their profits, and because unions empower workers to raise their voices and fight for what they deserve — which companies know is against their profit-driven interests. Companies spend billions of dollars on union-busting firms out of fear that workers will have the vehicle to collectively demand more.

Although framed as a “progressive” measure, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion departments are being used to bust unions as well. Companies are using DE&I initiatives as token gestures to persuade workers that unions are unnecessary, and the companies can provide spaces where workers can voice their issues, oftentimes based on identity. “Corporations are trying to hijack the language of liberation as a way to prevent workers from having a voice at the table and a say in their jobs,” said Wes McEnany, a former organizer with CODE-CWA, a project of the Communication Workers of America to unionize the tech industry. The point is to make workers feel heard without the company giving substantive improvement in workers’ conditions, while isolating workers into identity groups rather than allowing workers to come together as a multinational working class with diverse genders, religions and sexualities.

“The working class needs to rise up and stop taking no for an answer,” says Laila Dalton later at that same rally. “Abortion rights are human rights!”

Despite all these union-busting tactics, Starbucks workers have continued to show resilience in their union struggle. Over 150 stores have voted in favor of unionizing, and the number continues to grow, despite the array of illegal tactics the NLRB says Starbucks has used.

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