from the not-how-that-works dept
The trend continues. One of the things we’ve noticed more frequently as of late has been larger companies attempting to use trademark law as some kind of cudgel against employee unions. This has taken several forms, from Wal-Mart attempting to shut down a union website for accurately calling itself a union of Wal-Mart employees, Medieval Times trying to shutter a website and merch for its performers’ union for the same reason, and Trader Joes attacking its employees’ union ostensibly for similar reasons, but really it just wanted to cause as much trouble and pain for the union as possible.
This case is admittedly different and, arguably, worse. In this case, Starbucks has threatened Starbucks Workers United with a trademark lawsuit principally, it appears, because the union started tweeting things the company doesn’t like about Gaza.
Starbucks is threatening to sue Starbucks Workers United, the union that represents employees of the coffee conglomerate, for trademark infringement following the union’s ‘Solidarity with Palestine!’ tweet.
Last week, a letter was sent to the president of the union demanding that the union ‘immediately cease and desist’ from using the company’s name and logo or the company will pursue legal action ‘including without limitation monetary damages.’
The tweet has since been deleted, but it read “Solidarity with Palestine!” and was sent in the midst of Israel’s response to a horrific terror attack launched by Hamas out of the Gaza Strip. Now, there is a lot to discuss about the history leading up to this conflict, actions that have been taken on both sides of the equation here, and all the rest. But this is not the forum for that discussion. Nor is the union’s opinion on matters of geo-politics in any way trespassing into the realm of trademark law. In other words, the union’s activities don’t suddenly become trademark infringement simply because it tweeted out something Starbucks doesn’t like, even if you don’t like it either.
It appears the lawyers for Starbucks don’t understand that.
The lawyers wrote that because the union had made ‘statements advocating for violence in the Middle East,’ they must change their name, website address, social media accounts, merchandise, and anything else the features their logo.
The union president Lynne Fox wrote in a response that the company had not managed to ‘identify any such statement.’ She added that Starbucks Workers United is affiliated with SEIU, the president of which issued a statement that read:
‘The violence in Israel and Palestine is unconscionable. @SEIU stands with all who are suffering, while strongly condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia & hate in all forms.’
This is a complete non-starter and I’ll be surprised if any lawsuit is actually filed. That being said, executives at the company are insisting a lawsuit will be filed in federal court over all of this. If it does, it will clearly be a lawsuit designed to stop the speech rights of the union through punitive action.
And all the same arguments as to why the union is not infringing simply by calling itself a union for laborers of the company, nor is the branding it chose for itself that has some similarity to the corporate branding, because nobody will be mislead or confused as to the affiliation of a big company and the union it desperately wishes didn’t exist.