Just days before workers at three Starbucks stores in the Buffalo area were scheduled to begin voting on unionization, both labor and management took steps that reflect the high stakes involved, including an attempt by Starbucks on Monday to delay the election.
No corporate-owned Starbucks stores in the United States are unionized. Since workers at the three locations filed petitions in August seeking to affiliate with a union, the company has brought in officials from out of state — including managers and its president of retail for North America — to address problems at stores in the area.
The union filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board last week accusing the company of unlawfully “engaging in a campaign of threats, intimidation, surveillance, solicitation of grievances and the closing of facilities” during the election campaign.
On Saturday afternoon, Starbucks closed stores in the area so workers could attend a talk by Howard Schultz, the company’s largest individual shareholder and its former chief executive, at a local hotel.
Attendance at the session was voluntary, and Mr. Schultz did not mention the union campaign explicitly. But according to a transcript provided by Starbucks, he appeared to allude to the unionization effort repeatedly.
“We’re not a perfect company,” Mr. Schultz told employees at the meeting, who included baristas, managers and company officials. “Mistakes are made. We learn from them, and we try and fix them.” He argued that the company’s history of doing right by its employees, including offering them health care benefits and equity, showed that it had their interests in mind.
On a visit to the area in September to talk to managers, “I heard some things I never heard before about the condition of some of the stores some of you were working in,” he said on Saturday, without specifying the issues. “I made a promise to the managers that all of that would be addressed and fixed.”
Workers who support the union have cited chronic understaffing, insufficient training and pay increases that fail to keep up with seniority. Some say the problems were compounded by the pandemic but long preceded it. In October, the company announced a new pay plan that included wage increases.
Union supporters, who are seeking to become part of Workers United, an affiliate of the giant Service Employees International Union, also say they want to ensure that they have a voice in resolving problems that arise on the job.
The National Labor Relations Board is scheduled to begin sending ballots to workers at the three stores on Wednesday; they are due back by Dec. 8. Under an October ruling from a regional official of the labor board, the three stores are slated to hold separate elections, meaning that a simple majority at any one of the stores would create a union.
But on Monday, Starbucks appealed the ruling, arguing that the board’s acting regional director erred in not setting up a single election involving all stores in the Buffalo area instead. It asked the N.L.R.B. in Washington to review the decision, and for a stay in mailing out ballots until the board rules. A single, larger election typically favors the employer.
Some workers who attended Mr. Schultz’s talk were confused by a story he told about the Holocaust, in which he noted that only a small portion of prisoners in German concentration camps received blankets but often shared them with fellow prisoners.
“So much of that story is threaded into what we have tried to do at Starbucks is share our blanket,” Mr. Schultz said, according to the transcript.
“Felt like it wasn’t a very appropriate analogy,” said Colin Cochran, a barista and union supporter in Buffalo whose store is not one of the three scheduled to hold an election, in a text message to a reporter.
After Mr. Schultz finished his remarks, a union supporter stood up and urged Starbucks to endorse a set of “fair election principles” that include allowing the union to make its case to workers on company time.
Some in the audience cheered for the worker, while others cheered for an employee who spoke up to criticize the union campaign, video provided by the company shows. Bloomberg reported earlier on the meeting.
Union supporters have complained about the presence of the out-of-state officials.
Former labor board officials say the presence of the officials, the closing of stores in the area and large increases in staffing at stores that have filed for union elections could compromise the so-called laboratory conditions that are supposed to prevail during an election campaign, leading the board to overturn the result should the union lose.
Starbucks has said that it doesn’t believe any of its actions would require an election to be set aside, and that the company officials are helping to resolve operational issues, such as understaffing and lack of training. The company said it frequently makes similar changes in other cities.
After workers began their union campaign, Starbucks closed a few Buffalo-area stores, turning one of them into a training facility. Two of the stores have reopened.
Sierra Hayes, who has worked as a barista at a Buffalo-area Starbucks while attending college over the last three years, said she found the presence of out-of-town officials helpful. Ms. Hayes cited a remodeling of her store that the officials oversaw, which she said made working there more efficient.
In an interview set up by a Starbucks spokesman, Ms. Hayes said that supervisors had been responsive to input from employees during her time at the company and that she worried that having a union could change that.
“I feel like adding a third party ruins a relationship that’s going really well so far,” she said. “A lot of great things that we have at Starbucks, benefits, have been ideas from partners.”
The union also accuses the company of seeking to dilute its support by transferring in or hiring a significant number of additional workers at two of the three stores that will be voting.
A store near the Buffalo airport had about 20 employees eligible to vote when the workers there filed their petition in late August, according to the union. The company said shortly after that there were 27 eligible voters at the store; a more recent list of eligible voters that the company shared with the union had 46 workers.
Richard Bensinger, a former organizing director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. who is helping to organize Starbucks employees for Workers United, said the increase in the number was significant because support for the union was unanimous among workers the union considered eligible at the time of the election filing.
“The company knew that with 100 percent support they had to do something to massively disrupt” the campaign, Mr. Bensinger said in an email.
Wilma B. Liebman, a former N.L.R.B. chairwoman, said the board could conclude that the company had unlawfully “packed” the store with voters if hiring or transferring them in served no legitimate business purpose and if the company had reason to believe they were likely to oppose a union. Longtime employees at the store have said the addition of the workers resulted in overstaffing and led to crowding behind the bar.
Starbucks said its recent voter list included a number of workers from other stores who had helped fill staffing shortages at the airport location. It said those workers were eligible to vote under the labor board’s criteria.