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Originally published January 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 9, 2009 at 8:45 AM

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Starbucks facing more union woes

The union lumps keep coming for Starbucks, which was thumped by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last month for unfair labor practices at several New York cafes.

Seattle Times business reporter

The union lumps keep coming for Starbucks, which was thumped by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last month for unfair labor practices at several New York cafes.

Last week, the company settled a separate NLRB dispute in Michigan and on Wednesday is to begin proceedings there in a third case in which it allegedly fired a barista because of his union activities.

All three cases were initiated by baristas affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a century-old union that has worked for several years to improve conditions for Starbucks workers.

In New York, an administrative-law judge with the NLRB said last month that work rules were unfairly imposed on employees who supported the union. The coffee chain was ordered to give back jobs to three former workers and compensate them for lost earnings. The company also must post notices informing employees of their labor-organizing rights.

Starbucks plans to appeal the ruling, according to spokeswoman Tara Darrow.

Such appeals often take a year and might last longer now that the NLRB's board has lost three of its five members, said University of Tennessee law professor Jeff Hirsch, a former attorney at the NLRB.

Last week's settlement stemmed from a complaint that barista and IWW member Cole Dorsey made to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration about a leaky air conditioner.

In interviewing at least one Starbucks worker about the matter, attorneys at a local law firm representing Starbucks neglected to issue legally required warnings that help prevent coercive questioning.

"We contend that these warnings are not necessary when dealing with an occupational safety charge. The NLRB disagreed," Darrow said in an e-mail. "We elected to settle the matter to avoid litigation."

Starbucks did not admit wrongdoing but must post a notice in the affected store in Grand Rapids "saying they won't do it again," said NLRB Regional Director Stephen Glasser.

Dorsey, the barista who complained about the air conditioner, was fired in June after working for Starbucks almost two years. The NLRB charges that he was dismissed because of his union activities.

He was fired eight months after Starbucks and the IWW settled an agreement over unionizing efforts by employees at his Grand Rapids store. At that time, Starbucks agreed to post notices in that store advising employees of their unionizing rights.

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Such settlements never come with fines and rarely with admissions of wrongdoing. The Employee Free Choice Act, which stalled in the last session of Congress, would allow the NLRB to order fines in some situations, according to former NLRB attorney Hirsch. The bill faces strong opposition from the business community.

In October, Starbucks settled a similar complaint in Minneapolis regarding another employee who claimed he was fired for encouraging co-workers to join the IWW.

In Dorsey's case in Michigan, Starbucks has not settled. The case will be heard by administrative-law judge Eric Fine.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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