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Starbucks, Union Duel Over IP After Pro-Palestine Tweets

By Lauren Berg · 2023-10-19 00:23:24 -0400 ·

Starbucks Corp. alleged Wednesday that the union representing its baristas hijacked its name and logos, leading to calls for a boycott against the coffee giant following union tweets supporting Palestine, while the union claimed that Starbucks falsely accused it of supporting terrorism as part of its ongoing anti-union campaign.

logos of Starbucks and accused infringer

Starbucks Corp. accused the union representing its baristas of hijacking its name and logos, leading to calls for a boycott against the coffee giant following union tweets supporting Palestine, while the union contends the company falsely accused it of supporting terrorism as part of its ongoing anti-union campaign. (Court documents)

Starbucks alleges in its Iowa federal court complaint that Workers United is improperly using the name "Starbucks Workers United" and has adopted Starbucks' trademarks without permission for use in the union's own logos. That has misled customers into believing that the coffee company endorses statements made by the union, including a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that voiced support for Palestine following Hamas militants' attack on Israel, according to Starbucks.

"Given the accused marks' similarities to the Starbucks marks, the accused marks are likely to convey to customers a false affiliation, endorsement or sponsorship with Starbucks," the Seattle-based coffee company said, noting that the marks' similarities have already led to "harmful confusion."

For example, following the Hamas-led killings in Israel on Oct. 7, Starbucks said the union retweeted a post reportedly showing a bulldozer tearing down a fence on the Israel-Gaza border, writing, "Solidarity with Palestine!" The union's use of the Starbucks name led to public confusion and some customers mistakenly attributed that post to Starbucks, despite the company's efforts to set the record straight, according to the complaint.

Starbucks also pointed to several pro-Palestine posts that Iowa City Starbucks Workers United allegedly retweeted on X, including one advertising a protest in Chicago, according to the suit,

"As a result of the social media posts by [Workers United and Iowa City Starbucks Workers United] using the Starbucks marks and Starbucks works, Starbucks received hundreds of complaints from customers and other members of the public in the immediate aftermath, chastising and singling out Starbucks — not defendants — for supporting Hamas," the complaint states.

"Starbucks continues to receive such complaints as a direct result of the demonstrable consumer confusion as to responsibility and actual beliefs created by defendants' use of Starbucks marks," it states.

The company said its employees have been threatened, its stores have been vandalized and there have been calls to boycott the coffee chain since the union's tweet.

The suit claims trademark dilution, trademark infringement and copyright infringement, among other things. It seeks injunctive relief barring the unions from infringing Starbucks' marks, damages, attorney fees and other relief.

The complex international conflict in the Gaza Strip has escalated in recent days following the initial Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, which the U.S. designates a terrorist group, when Hamas fighters reportedly killed at least 1,400 civilians and soldiers in Israel, and took nearly 200 people hostage.

Israel responded to the attack by launching a bombing campaign and cutting off water, power and fuel to the Gaza Strip.

Also on Wednesday, Workers United filed its own complaint against Starbucks, seeking a declaratory judgment that it can continue to use the Starbucks Workers United name and logo. The union claims Starbucks has defamed it through the company's public statements claiming the union supports "terrorism, hate and violence," according to the complaint filed in Pennsylvania federal court.

"The company's statements are a transparent effort to bolster its illegal anti-union campaign by falsely attacking the union's reputation with workers and the public," Workers United said, noting that many unions have specifically incorporated the employer's name in their titles, including Half Price Books Workers United, Amazon Labor Union and Southwest Airline Pilots Association.

Starbucks Workers United came together in 2021, after Starbucks employees in Buffalo, New York, began organizing a union with the support of Workers United, according to the suit. The union's logo features the words "Starbucks Workers United" in a circle around a clenched fist holding a cup, the complaint states.

According to Law360's Starbucks Unionization Tracker, Starbucks employees have made efforts to form a union at more than 500 locations nationwide.

The company has pushed back on the campaign, with the union accusing it of surveilling, firing and disciplining workers who support the organizing drive. The union has filed over 650 unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks concerning its union response.

National Labor Relations Board judges have found in 28 cases that the company has violated the National Labor Relations Act. The full NLRB has held Starbucks liable for unfair labor practices in four cases, according to board data released Sept. 28.

Throughout these battles, Workers United said the Starbucks' union has maintained an identity that is "clearly independent" from the coffee chain. What's more, the union has no interest in creating confusion, as it could lead to workers fearing the union is controlled by the company, according to its Wednesday complaint.

Regarding the "Solidarity with Palestine" tweet, Workers United said it was not authorized by union leadership and was deleted within about 40 minutes. But when Starbucks sent a letter demanding that the union stop using the company's names, logos and other intellectual property, the union said the company didn't offer any evidence that the public was confused about the source of the tweet.

Starbucks has since made public statements implying that Workers United supports violence and terrorism, posting on its website on Oct. 11, "We unequivocally condemn these acts of terrorism, hate and violence, and disagree with the statements and views expressed by Workers United and its members. Workers United's words and actions belong to them, and them alone," according to the complaint.

"The post implies that Workers United has made 'statements' and expressed 'views' supporting 'terrorism, hate and violence,'" the union said. "These allegations were false."

"Starbucks Workers United did not make a 'statement' let alone multiple 'statements' advocating for violence, nor did the union take a 'position' supporting violence," it added, noting that even the unauthorized tweet "did not indicate that the union supports terrorism."

Starbucks' false statements have harmed the union's reputation, according to the complaint.

The union's suit, which makes one claim of defamation, seeks declaratory judgment of noninfringement of trademarks and compensatory and punitive damages.

In a statement announcing its lawsuit on Wednesday, Starbucks reiterated that some customers have mistakenly tied the union's statements to the company while rejecting the union's allegations of anti-union behavior.

"Such reckless and reprehensible behavior must be addressed through the lens of our partners' safety and public clarity of Starbucks official position, which condemns the violence in the region," the company said. "This position is apart from our continued commitment to good faith bargaining that we have insisted through hundreds of requests and unfair labor practice filings."

Starbucks also told Law360 it believes the union's suit is meritless and that the company will defend its claims.

In its Oct. 17 response to Starbucks' initial cease-and-desist letter, Starbucks Workers United accused the company of trying to "exploit the ongoing tragedy in the Middle East to bolster the company's anti-union campaign."

Counsel for Workers United declined to comment Thursday.

Starbucks isn't the first company to accuse a union of infringing its marks.

Earlier this month, Trader Joe's United hit the grocery store chain with an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, alleging the store retaliated against union workers by filing a trademark infringement lawsuit over the union's logo.

A New Jersey judge in September tossed a nearly identical suit against Medieval Times Performers United, finding that customers wouldn't be likely to confuse the union with the medieval-themed dinner theater.

Starbucks is represented by R. Scott Johnson of Fredrikson & Byron PA and Peter M. Brody, Douglas H. Hallward-Driemeier, Rocky C. Tsai, S. Lara Ameri and Meredith Foor of Ropes & Gray LLP.

Workers United is represented by Eric L. Young of Young Law Group, Daniel M. Rosenthal, Elizabeth Grdina and Charlotte H. Schwartz of James & Hoffman PC and Mary Joyce Carlson.

The suit is Starbucks Corp. v. Service Employees International Union et al., case number 3:23-cv-00068, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.

--Additional reporting by Beverly Banks and Kelly Lienhard. Editing by Michael Watanabe.

Update: This story has been updated with additional comment from Starbucks and to reflect that counsel for Workers United declined to comment, as well as Starbucks Workers United's response to a company cease-and-desist letter.

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