Why Starbucks Is Being Accused Of Threatening Trans Employees' Rights

In 2021, a Reddit user aksed trans employees what it's really like to work at Starbucks. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with one employee pointing out that Starbucks' healthcare plan covers gender confirmation surgery. In fact, this coverage goes all the way back to 2012, as Starbucks notes on its website. Now, however, some trans Starbucks employees are concerned these salad days may soon be coming to an end. 

According to Bloomberg, trans Starbucks employees from several states allege their managers warned them that should their store vote to unionize, they may see their transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits vanish. In addition, employees from an Oklahoma Starbucks store that is in the process of moving toward a vote on whether to unionize, have expressed concerns that even if such benefits were to remain in place as a technical matter, they would be constructively deprived of them if their managers were to drop their scheduled hours below the requisite threshold to qualify for healthcare benefits — presumably in retaliation for having voted to unionize.

In connection with these concerns, Workers United recently filed two lawsuits against Starbucks with the National Labor Relations Board, the independent agency of the federal government charged with enforcing the National Labor Relations Act. One relates to the aforementioned Oklahoma store; the other to a store in Kansas. Both lawsuits allege Starbucks violated the Act by threatening trans employees with a loss of health benefits in the event their stores unionize.

Starbucks maintains it is well within its rights

Starbucks has spoken out about the unionization of its stores and is against the push, per Bloomberg Law. However, it's not up to the company. Under the National Labor Relations Act, employees have the right to organize and it is illegal under the Act for an employer to "interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of" this right. On the other hand, employers are within their legal rights to share "negative opinions and predictions about unionization with employees," per Bloomberg

Starbucks is not denying that it has deputized its managers to inform its employees that if their stores do end up voting to unionize, then some of the things those employees had valued about working at Starbucks may no longer be applicable. Indeed, it is true that when employees unionize, they give up their right to negotiate directly with their employer as to the terms of their employment. That right is delegated to the union, which is responsible for negotiating with the employer on the member employees' collective behalf. 

It may be natural for employees to vote in favor of unionizing under the assumption that their individual interests will be represented during collective bargaining, but it's impossible to predict how things will actually go — especially if negotiations come down to a choice between an extra vacation day for every employee versus coverage of gender confirmation surgery for a few trans employees. Therein lies the rub for Starbucks' trans employees.

Starbucks trans employees maintain Starbucks has crossed a line

Although the National Labor Relations Act affords employers the right to share with employees their negative opinions and predictions about what might come out of proposed efforts to unionize, what employers are never allowed to do is to make anti-union threats, including threats of retaliation for voting to organize, per Bloomberg. While Starbucks regards the warnings that its managers may have made to trans employees as merely informational, Workers United maintains that such warnings made to trans Starbucks employees amount to illegal threats. 

"There can be a very fine line between a prediction and a threat," Saint Louis University labor law professor and former NLRB attorney Matthew Bodie told Bloomberg. Whether Starbucks has crossed that line, is a question for the NLRB to decide as it addresses the lawsuits filed on behalf of workers from the stores in Oklahoma and Kansas. One argument that may prove relevant as the NLRB weighs the evidence in these cases may be that the rights of trans workers are perceived by some as being under attack in the U.S. and particularly in Oklahoma, per Eater. In fact, one trans worker from the Oklahoma store in question purports that Starbucks is well aware that trans workers are feeling "particularly vulnerable at this time" and is deliberately using that vulnerability to its advantage by approaching trans workers and reminding them that voting to unionize could prove to be contrary to their interest, per Bloomberg.