Starbucks, union file dueling lawsuits over pro-Palestine social media post

Starbucks, union file dueling lawsuits over pro-Palestine social media post

Starbucks says a post by a union account over the Israel-Hamas war damaged its reputation. The union says Starbucks is using the moment to perpetuate its ‘anti-union campaign’

Mary Walrath-Holdridge

Starbucks and the union representing the coffee giant’s organized workers have filed dueling lawsuits over a social media post about the Israel-Hamas war, according to court documents obtained by USA TODAY on Thursday.

The Seattle-based chain filed a federal lawsuit against Starbucks Workers United in Iowa on Wednesday over a pro-Palestine post shared by a union account in the early days of the Hamas-Israel war, court records show.

This post damaged the company’s reputation and garnered negative attention from customers, with more than 1,000 people sending in complaints, Starbucks claims in the lawsuit. The company also says that workers and stores across the country have since received threatening phone calls, hostile customers and vandalism.

In their own lawsuit filed in federal court in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, the union says Starbucks — long known for its rocky history with organizers — is using the incident to perpetuate an “illegal anti-union campaign by falsely attacking the union’s reputation with workers and the public.” 

Here’s what you need to know about the legal battle:

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What did the Starbucks Workers United post say?

On Oct. 9, the Starbucks Workers United’s account on X shared a post that read: “Solidarity with Palestine!” Starbucks said in a statement that the post included an image of a bulldozer tearing down a fence on the Israel-Gaza border, a description that matches a screengrab shared by the New York Post.

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The post was deleted within about 40 minutes, but shares of the post and other posts expressing similar sentiments remained on the accounts of individual union members and local Starbucks Workers United branches.

The union said in its lawsuit that workers put up the message without the permission of union leaders.

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Lawsuits by Starbucks and workers union begin to fly

Citing copyright infringement in its lawsuit, Starbucks wants the union to stop using “Starbucks” in the union name and stop using a logo with a green circle resembling the coffee chain’s.

In their lawsuit, union members say that Starbucks has defamed the union and that they are seeking to keep their name and logo. They also deny any allegations of “supporting terrorism, hate and violence.”

In a statement sent to USA TODAY, Starbucks Executive Vice President Sara Kelly said the post reflects the union’s “support for violence perpetrated by Hamas” and that Starbucks “unequivocally condemns acts of terrorism, hate and violence.”

“Unfortunately, as violence against the innocent in the region continues to escalate, some people are mistakenly tying these remarks to us, because Workers United and its affiliates and members continue to use our name, logo and intellectual property,” Kelly said. “None of these groups speak for Starbucks Coffee Company and do not represent our company’s views, positions, or beliefs. Their words and actions belong to them, and them alone.”

Workers United cited similar trademark cases involving unions, including a recent legal battle involving Medieval Times Workers United, who won a legal fight with Medieval Times over use of the company name and logo.

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Starbucks, Workers United exchanged tense letters ahead of the lawsuits

Four days after the pro-Palestine post, Starbucks sent a letter to the union making initial demands to remove the company’s name and logo from union materials.

In a letter sent back to Starbucks attorneys on Tuesday, union President Lynne Fox pushed back at what she called Starbucks’ “frivolous legal claims.”

“The letter (sent by Starbucks) asserts that Workers United has made ‘statements advocating for violence in the Middle East,’ but does not identify any such statement,” she wrote. “Starbucks is seeking to exploit the ongoing tragedy in the Middle East to bolster the company’s anti-union campaign. Your letter asserts frivolous legal claims, while falsely implying that the union supports terrorism.”

She also argued that the social media account under scrutiny is clearly a union account, saying the company has produced no evidence of public confusion about the source and that “no one would mistake these as statements of Starbucks Corporation.”

United Workers’ parent organization, Service Employees International Union, put out their own statement Tuesday, saying they believe “that all Israelis and Palestinians deserve safety, freedom from violence, and the opportunity to thrive.”

“Our union includes many who have family members, Israeli and Palestinian, who have been impacted by the recent violence,” the statement said. “We stand against antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism and hate in all its forms around the world.”

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Starbucks’ rocky past with labor unions

Starbucks has gained a reputation for being anti-union, recently facing scrutiny when a National Labor Relations Board judge found the company had committed hundreds of unfair labor practices during unionization efforts at stores in the Buffalo, New York, area.

A Buffalo location was the first Starbucks to organize back in 2021, kicking off a spate of unionizations in at least 366 stores across the U.S.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz testified at a Senate hearing in March that Starbucks did not break the law and respects employee rights.

The chain has experienced a series of strikes at locations across the country, criticism for closing stores and negative media attention as union efforts have continued at new locations.

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