After 16 days of picketing outside their Starbucks location in Brookline, recently unionized baristas are preparing for a legal battle with the corporation over the strike.

Last month, 20 employees at the Starbucks location at 874 Commonwealth Ave. hung up their aprons and set up a picket line to demand a stop to what they say is retaliation from Starbucks since the shop became one of the first to successfully unionize in June. Employee filed multiple complaints with the National Labor Relations Board alleging intimidation, increased surveillance and cutting of hours. They say they plan to continue picketing until the company provides guaranteed stable shifts and replaces the current manager.

Starbucks responded to the strike with a statement saying it has the legal right "to hire permanent replacements for striking workers under certain circumstances (such as an indefinite strike)." The company added it is “hopeful” replacing workers “will not become necessary in this case.”

Employees in Brookline say they have been meeting with officials from the National Labor Relations Board this week to prepare for what could become an unprecedented legal battle. Baristas argue that the strike was launched over unfair labor practices, which would mean replacing striking workers would be illegal. Starbucks disagrees.

“The employees are saying it’s about labor conditions, and it seems like Starbucks is saying it’s just about milking more money from [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz,” GBH Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed said. “There's probably a looming legal battle over the nature of this strike, whether it's about money or about conditions.”

If Starbucks brings in new employees to permanently replace the striking workers, the union — represented by labor union Workers United — could sue the company and bring an injunction to enjoin Starbucks to stop bringing in replacements, Medwed said.

“At that point, a judge would have to decide what type of strike this is,” he said. “Because this is now the longest Starbucks strike in the country, we find ourselves on unprecedented ground. The outcome of this case could provide interesting precedent for future disputes.”

Pro-union pamphlets outside the picket line at a Starbucks shop in Brookline, Tuesday, August 2, 2022
Tori Bedford GBH News

The Brookline shop has been closed for 16 days, with workers picketing outside around the clock, regardless of lack of pay or unpleasant weather.

“I am willing to sweat myself to dehydration every day if it means that my coworkers can afford to live without wondering if they have to choose rent or groceries,” barista Spencer Costigan said. “This is a crucial fight to not back down from, and Starbucks knows that. They know that this is going to be a very heavy blow to them when they lose this, so I’m expecting a lot of aggression.”

Starbucks has previously denied retaliation against unionizing employees. “Starbucks respects the rights of workers to participate in a legally protected strike without retaliation,” the company wrote in a statement. “We will always support our partners’ right to work in a collegial and collaborative environment.”

In addition to meeting with the National Labor Relations Board, unionized baristas have warned other workers from shops not to take on shifts at the stores on strike, despite claims of reduced hours and understaffing at unionized locations across the state.

“We’re ready, we’re on the front lines of this,” Costigan said. “They can’t scare us away with lawyers, because we’ve got lawyers too.”

Workers plan to continue striking until their demands are met.

Employees at the Brookline shop say they are still waiting on checks from a national strike relief fund, which can provide 70% of what workers would normally make.

“We don't know how long this is going to go on for and we don't know how much support we're going to be able to get financially, so a lot of us are very worried about bills,” barista Isabel Beaudry said. “Being in this position for an indefinite amount of time is very scary, but it’s something we have to do.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who joined workers at the picket in Brookline on Tuesday, applauded their decision to maintain the strike. "I think they feel emboldened by the labor victories that have taken place throughout the country," Pressley said. "This is how change happens.”

Employees on strike have received support from leaders on a national and local level, including Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and members of other local unions.

Nick Weiske, a Brighton resident and member of Democratic Socialists of America, has been showing up at the picket line nearly every day since the beginning of the strike.

“When you have solidarity from all corners of the commonwealth or the country, it really does underscore that we are one human family,” Weiske said. “What happens to one of us should affect all of us when there's an injustice.”

Dozens of Starbucks locations across Massachusetts are now in the process of unionizing, and 14 locations have successfully won union elections. Four of those locations — Coolidge Corner, Cleveland Circle, Watertown and Worcester — launched strikes Monday, with darkened store fronts and picket lines filling the sidewalks outside.

“We’re gearing up for a battle and we’re ready to call Starbucks on their bluff,” barista and union organizer Kylah Clay said. “They don’t have the ability to open up all these stores, and they can’t replace us all.”