Starbucks’s interim chief executive, Howard Schultz, told a weekly meeting of store managers on Monday that benefits he was considering expanding for nonunion employees would not immediately apply to the company’s newly unionized workers.
The pronouncement, just over one week into Mr. Schultz’s third tour as chief executive, came after workers in at least 16 company-owned stores voted to unionize over the past six months, though the National Labor Relations Board has not yet certified all the results.
Since Mr. Schultz returned as chief executive, Starbucks has fired at least three union supporters, who a spokesman said had violated company policies. Mr. Schultz also suspended stock repurchases so the company would “have the opportunity to invest more in our partners and stores,” he said in a letter to employees on Sunday, and he has held meetings with employees in several cities to ask their ideas for improving the company.
Two appearances became contentious when Mr. Schultz was confronted by pro-union employees.
A Starbucks spokesman said the comments on benefits in the meeting on Monday arose during a question-and-answer session, when Mr. Schultz was asked how new benefits the company was considering might fit in with the union campaign.
The spokesman, paraphrasing Mr. Schultz, said the chief executive responded that when introducing a benefit, “we are not permitted by law to unilaterally give that benefit to the stores that voted for union while they are in collective bargaining.”
The spokesman said the topic of benefits arose from employees’ input at recent sessions with Mr. Schultz, and that the Starbucks chief had not provided examples of benefits he was considering or when they might be offered.
The comments were reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
Experts on labor law said that companies were allowed to discuss the difference in benefits that union and nonunion employees received, but that they could not make an implied promise that employees would receive better benefits if they chose not to unionize.
Matthew Bodie, a former lawyer for the labor board who teaches law at St. Louis University, said the comments could be interpreted as undermining the so-called laboratory conditions required for coming union elections if they had been public, but not necessarily if they were expected to remain confidential. Mr. Bodie said the comments could still amount to evidence of an intent to bargain in bad faith by seeking to give union employees a worse deal than nonunion employees, which is also considered an unfair labor practice.
Wilma Liebman, a former chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board, said the timing of the potential benefits were questionable, since it was unclear whether they would have been added if not for the union campaign.
While it is difficult to know with certainty whether Mr. Schultz crossed a legal line without reviewing his precise comments, which the company did not provide, the spokesman said Mr. Schultz had merely been stating what the law required.
Mr. Schultz has been outspoken in his opposition to the union. In his letter on Sunday, he suggested that many employees who supported unionization were “colluding with outside union forces” and wrote that he did not believe that “conflict, division and dissension — which has been a focus of union organizing — benefits Starbucks or our partners.”
He added that fewer than 1 percent of more than 200,000 Starbucks employees in the United States had voted to unionize, and that roughly 65 percent of employees eligible to vote in a union election had not taken part.