Bitter Dregs: Salting and Decertifications at Starbucks

by | May 18, 2023 | Labor Relations Insight

In the last month, baristas at 4 Starbucks stores filed decertification petitions to get rid of SEIU-Workers United. That makes a total of 5 filed in the last year. This is unsurprising given how many of these units were organized, and it is not good news for Workers United. It suggests that baristas voted for unionization without really understanding how they work. And in many cases, these baristas were misled by co-workers secretly being paid to organize Starbucks stores.

You may wonder whether filings at five stores are that big a deal. So far, it’s just around 2% of the stores organized by SEIU-Workers United. Further, 2 of these petitions were already withdrawn or dismissed for being untimely (a decertification petition will be dismissed if it is filed less than a year after certification). That doesn’t seem like too big a problem.

However, you can expect a lot more decertification filings in the next few months. That’s because of the way these stores were organized. Take a look at the following chart from our LRIRightnow database, mapping out the number of Starbucks petitions since the beginning of this campaign in the summer of 2021:


You’ll notice the giant spike of petitions filed from January to June 2023. This is when the vast majority of Starbucks locations unionized. Through May of last year, 296 petitions had been filed. However, 15 petitions were dismissed or withdrawn (281 petitions remaining).  However, these are the petition dates, not the dates of certification.

Once a petition is filed, it takes around a month to hold an election (which can be longer or shorter depending on whether there are significant issues about the correct number of voters in the unit). If you look back one year from today, out of these 281 remaining petitions, only 60 were certified by the day I wrote this (May 18, 2023). The union was only certified as the representative in 57 stores (in the other three stores, baristas rejected representation).

This means that the current number of decertification petitions filed represents 7% of the stores eligible to filethem (if you count the Oklahoma City store that filed just a few months after its certification last year, it’s about 9% of the stores organized so far). That’s a much different story.

Why so much buyer’s remorse? I’ve been predicting this for a while, but I’d suggest the main reason is that so many baristas voted in favor of unionization without really understanding what it meant. This is an easy mistake. The subject of unions is complicated. There’s a lot of misinformation about how unions work. And even when unions claim to “win” through bargaining, they often just get members the same things non-represented workers receive. Government statistics show that in the post-pandemic economy, non-represented workers have done much better than unionized workers in multiple industries.

Another reason I think baristas misunderstood how unions work is that people were misleading them. People they believed were well-meaning friends and co-workers were actually paid union salts. SEIU-Workers United paid at least $2.5 Million to infiltrate Starbucks stores with paid union organizers in a tactic called salting. And this almost certainly understates the total number of people being paid to organize Starbucks. For example, groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and worker centers, who don’t technically act as bargaining representatives, do not currently report the way a traditional union like SEIU-Workers United does (I’ll save for another day my questions about why this should be the case).

While technically lawful, the tactics salts use are very troubling. Acting as a “mole” in the workplace, they often hide their true loyalty, acting as a friend and confidant, all while reporting back everything they are learning to the SEIU. A very revealing article interviews several SEIU-Workers United salts bragging about this deception. Many of the original Starbucks salts have moved on to other organizing campaigns and aren’t even around for the bargaining phase, another typical move by salts. It’s not hard to understand why, once this deception comes to light, many feel uncertain about their original support for a union.

Unions might claim that this is the same type of activity companies engage in to discourage employees from unionizing, so why complain? Because when employers hire someone from outside the company to talk about unions with their employees, they are required to disclose that to the Department of Labor (DOL). It is done in the daylight. Employees know when a consultant is talking to them, and they get to decide for themselves if the consultant is credible after knowing they are being paid by the company.

Nancy Jowske wrote last month that the DOL should require the same thing of salts after they’re deployed. It’s a really important point to repeat:

Insert a new requirement that all paid salts report their salting activities to the DOL within two weeks of being ‘deployed’ to keep things transparent. Workers deserve to know if their impassioned, activist coworker/new best friend is a paid, trained, undercover agitator who won’t work a day in the unionized hellscapes left in their wake.

Reflecting on this got me thinking (like reading anything Nancy writes!) Why aren’t salts already required to report? The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act requires any “employer” (and entities like SEIU-Workers United and the DSA are clearly employers under the Act) who engages someone to persuade employees about the exercise of their rights under the Act to file an Agreement and Activities Report (and later to file a Receipts and Disbursements Report).

After reviewing the statute carefully, there is no legal reason to treat salts differently from any other consultant hired during a union campaign. They have exactly the same role as a management-side consultant—to present their side of the argument on union representation in the hope that employees will be persuaded to vote one way in an upcoming election. They have an agreement with an employer (in this case, the union or outside organization) to engage in this activity. They are paid to do it. All of these elements trigger a reporting requirement on the part of both the salt and the SEIU, DSA, or any other entity. Even if the salt is a volunteer, they still have to report the activity (there is just no receipt or disbursement to report).

I’m certainly in favor of the suggestion to create a new requirement for reporting salting activity. But I’m pretty certain it’s already required. I’m not holding my breath for the current DOL to begin enforcing this way, but one can dream. In the meantime, I’d expect many more Starbucks stores to file for decertification after a year of buyer’s remorse.

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