Slammed by slowing consumer demand and laying off workers by the score, Starbucks Coffee found fresh reason for grief Friday when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) said it found evidence of labor violations at its Mall of America stores.

The board's announcement followed a three-month investigation of complaints made by barista Erik Forman, who has campaigned to unionize the Seattle-based coffee chain.

"Our right to organize has been under assault since the inception of the campaign," said Forman, a barista at one of the two Starbucks shops at the Mall of America. "We can only hope that Starbucks does the right thing."

The Mall of America fracas is only the latest in a string of charges the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has filed against Starbucks since launching its campaign, and comes amid a moribund period for the onetime darling of the caffeinated Internet age.

After recording years of seemingly unstoppable growth, the national chain that boasts 16,862 locations saw its profit fall sharply with the onset of the recession. It laid off 6,700 workers in January. Profit fell 77 percent in its most recent quarter, the company said this week. Store openings will fall short of this year's plans, and some 300 locations will close. That's after 600 store closings last year, including 27 in Minnesota.

Forman's complaint, originally filed three months ago, alleges the company interfered with employee efforts to promote membership in the IWW Starbucks Workers Union, a group begun five years ago that now claims 300 members, some of them former employees.

"We've certainly found merit to allegations that Starbucks violated the National Labor Relations Act," said Marlin Osthus, attorney for the NLRB.

The allegations include prohibiting union postings in nonwork areas, removing union postings in nonwork areas, and instructions to employees to not speak about the union inside the stores, among other things.

A spokeswoman for Starbucks said in an e-mail that the company had not yet seen the allegations.

The complaint follows by several months a union win against Starbucks in which an NLRB judge in New York said the company illegally fired three baristas from shops in Manhattan and broke the law in its attempts to resist the workers' union drive. The baristas were rehired under terms ordered by the judge.

Forman himself was fired from Starbucks last summer for what the company said was arriving late for his shift. The company later rehired Forman, who said he was let go for promoting the union, as part of a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board.

Forman's battle with the company comes at an auspicious time for union organizers, who have legislation pending in Congress that would make it easier to create new unions. The Employee Free Choice Act would eliminate one of the steps toward unionization -- a secret ballot counted by the National Labor Relations Board -- and allow a union to form as long as a majority of employees sign a pro-union card.

Many companies, including Starbucks, have expressed opposition to two pieces of the legislation, one that would require binding arbitration if workers and management cannot negotiate a contract after 120 days and the second being the elimination of a secret ballot.

Starbucks, along with Whole Foods Co. and Costco, have lobbied for an amendment that drops the binding arbitration and allows managers to demand a secret-ballot election. It would also toughen penalties for union violations and make it easier for businesses to call for decertification elections.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329