In dueling lawsuits filed on Wednesday, October 18, Starbucks and Starbucks Workers United, the union that represents employees at hundreds of Starbucks shops, sued one another in a row sparked by pro-Palestine social media posts.
In a suit filed in federal court in Iowa, the coffee giant took the position that Starbucks Workers United committed copyright and trademark infringement by using the Starbucks name and a logo that features some elements of the Starbucks logo. It further argues that pro-Palestine statements made by Starbucks Workers United-affiliated social media accounts have led to complaints, boycotts, and even threats from people who believe SWU speaks for Starbucks.
Xuan-Thao Nguyen, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, tells Eater Seattle that Starbucks will have to clear several hurdles to prove that Starbucks Workers United is committing trademark infringement or diluting the value of Starbucks’s trademarks. Starbucks Workers United can argue that it is using the word Starbucks in its name “to identify who they are” rather than using it as a trademark. Another issue, Nguyen says, is that Starbucks Workers United has had its name since 2021 and Starbucks is only objecting now; the union can use a defense called “laches” to argue that the company has waited too long to take legal action.
Eater Seattle reached out to Starbucks Workers United and Starbucks, and both parties declined further comment. Both instead pointed to the complaints filed on Wednesday, which paint a clear picture of the dispute.
Starbucks says its lawsuit was prompted by a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, from the official Starbucks Workers United account on October 7, the day that the armed wing of the Palestinian group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, attacked Israel, taking hostages and killing 1,400 people. The post retweeted an image of a bulldozer destroying a fence on the Gaza border, which is controlled by Israel, and added “Solidarity with Palestine!” The tweet has since been taken down.
Since October 7, Israel has retaliated with airstrikes into Gaza, killing nearly 3,000 civilians in widespread bombings and blocking access to fuel, water, and food. Hamas has, in turn, continued to launch rockets towards Israel. The situation has raised tensions worldwide — sparking protests and both antisemitic and Islamophobic hate crimes in the U.S.
According to a countersuit filed by Starbucks Workers United, the “tweet was not authorized by the leadership of Workers United or Starbucks Workers United, and it was deleted after approximately 30-40 minutes.” Nevertheless, Starbucks claims that the post and some retweets of pro-Palestinian statements by the Iowa City Starbucks Workers United account led to “hundreds of complaints from customers and other members of the public in the immediate aftermath, chastising and singling out Starbucks — not [Starbucks Workers United] — for supporting Hamas.” (Bold and italics in original.)
U.S. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) called for a boycott of Starbucks until the company condemned the union’s position. Randy Fine, a Florida Republican lawmaker, went much further much faster, tweeting, “If you go to Starbucks, you are supporting killing Jews.” Starbucks’s filing contains several examples of tweets from people apparently under the impression that the company had expressed support for Hamas, as well as quotes from people who contacted Starbucks to say they would no longer be customers because they believed the company supported the Hamas attack on Israel.
Hamas, which seized control of the government in Gaza in 2006, is both a political and a militant organization. Israel and Hamas have been at war five times, including the current conflict, since 2008.
On Friday, October 13, lawyers retained by Starbucks sent a letter to Workers United — the Service Employees International Union affiliate that is organizing Starbucks workers — demanding that Starbucks Workers United change its name and its branding and publicly clarify that it did not speak for Starbucks, or else face a lawsuit. The company made good on that threat days later.
In a countersuit filed in Pennsylvania, the union says it has been using the Starbucks Workers United name and its logo — a hand holding a cup framed by a Starbucks-esque green circle — since 2021. As the union and the company have been engaged in a series of contentious and public battles for two years, Starbucks Workers United claims they have distinct identities: “Workers United has no interest in engendering confusion between itself and the corporation whose workers it represents. Particularly given Starbucks’ egregious anti-union campaign, Workers United does not want workers to fear that the Union is somehow controlled or sponsored by the company.”
Starbucks Workers United is also suing Starbucks for defamation because the company publicly claims on its website that the union’s statement “reflects their support for violence perpetrated by Hamas.”
These legal actions reflect the level of hostility between Starbucks and the union representing several thousand of its workers. Though Starbucks Workers United has won union elections at 360 stores across the United States, no store has successfully negotiated a contract with the coffee giant — a state of affairs that Starbucks Workers United and the National Labor Relations Board say is a product of the company illegally refusing to bargain in good faith. NLRB judges have ruled that Starbucks has violated labor law by punishing workers for unionizing in various ways.
Starbucks has appealed some of these NLRB decisions and maintains that the union is the one causing the delays, by among other things not agreeing to bargaining sessions where all of the attendees are there in person.
In its complaint, the union says that Starbucks’s lawsuit isn’t about any harm the company has suffered, but a way to hurt Starbucks Workers United.
“Given the lack of any actual customer confusion, the real purpose of Starbucks’s statements is to harm the reputation of Workers United,” the complaint says. “Ironically, while wrongly accusing Workers United of confusing customers about Starbucks’s position on terrorism, Starbucks has deliberately mischaracterized the union’s position as part of its anti-union campaign.”