U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Judge rules Starbucks union organizers must turn over media exchanges

Incident Details

September 23, 2022

Nearly two dozen individuals behind a unionization drive at Starbucks locations in Buffalo and Rochester, New York, were ordered to turn over their communications with journalists by a federal judge on Sept. 23, 2022.

The ruling came as part of a complaint the National Labor Relations Board filed against Starbucks in June 2022, accusing the Seattle-based coffee giant of union-busting activities. Starbucks denies any wrongdoing.

According to court records reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, organizers and current and former Starbucks employees were ordered in early September to turn over all documents concerning getting in contact with any media outlet about the unionization efforts and any resulting communications.

The Washington Post reported that the order would likely pertain to thousands of messages with journalists, and that the Post, The New York Times, Vice, Fox News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian and Buffalo News have extensively covered the organizing campaign.

NLRB filed a motion to quash the subpoenas or issue a protective order. Workers United, a labor union working to organize the New York stores, also received a subpoena and filed two motions to quash: one on its own behalf and one on behalf of the subpoenaed Starbucks employees.

On Sept. 23, District Judge John Sinatra Jr. issued his ruling quashing some requests in the subpoenas, but holding that communications and any recordings of conversations with the media would have to be produced.

According to the Post, it is unusual for a judge to approve a request that so blatantly targets communications with journalists, which would be protected under New York’s Shield Law if the journalists had been issued the subpoenas instead.

For subpoenas issued directly to journalists or news organizations, and information about how we document those legal orders, explore the Tracker’s Subpoena/Legal Order category.

A Starbucks spokesperson, Andrew Trull, defended the judge’s order in a statement to the Post alleging that the media received false information.

“This is about getting to the truth and uncovering misinformation that [union-supporting workers] have disseminated to both our partners and the public,” Trull said.

No documents were produced by the court-imposed deadline of Oct. 14. On Oct. 27, Starbucks filed a motion for the court to hold the union and the individuals subpoenaed in contempt and impose sanctions on them. That same day, Workers United notified the court of its intention to file an appeal of the judge’s ruling with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Sinatra has placed all proceedings — including ruling on the motion for sanctions — on hold until the appeal is resolved. As of publication, the appeal has not yet been filed.

The president of The NewsGuild, one of the largest journalist labor unions, told the Buffalo News that the order chips away at free press protections and creates a chilling effect for both journalists and their sources.

"Clearly, Starbucks is violating the First Amendment of our country by trying to get access to information that is part of the news gathering process," Jon Schleuss said. "The federal government has no place in restricting the freedom of press.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].