Starbucks workers remain determined to unionize despite retaliatory firings

Seven baristas at a Starbucks in Memphis, Tenn., were abruptly fired for violating “safety” and “security” protocols — protocols that have never been enforced and for which no worker has been punished in the past. Six of the seven workers were part of the union organizing committee. This is just one of many ways that Starbucks is attempting to intimidate workers across the country in hopes of preventing workers from unionizing.

However strong the company’s anti-union campaign is, Starbucks Workers United continues to organize unions with 88 stores across 25 states filing for elections so far. These union elections have the potential to have a very dramatic effect for Starbucks coffee workers nationwide. With workers banding together demanding a voice on the job, the company could have to eventually deal with a workforce that has the ability to win higher wages and better benefits and even grind production to a halt if their demands aren’t met. Starbucks is doing everything they can to try to crush union organizing in its early stages using tactics, including retaliatory firings and mandatory anti-union captive audience meetings.

The workers at the Poplar-Highland store who were fired have asserted that their termination is blatant retaliation against them for organizing a union. According to an interview with one of the fired workers, former shift supervisor Beto Sanchez, a hearing was set to take place the week of their firing to decide whether the 20 workers at this store could unionize. In another interview, a barista terminated from the store, Kylie Throckmorton, said that even after the firings the remaining baristas still plan to vote “yes” on unionizing. However, after the firings there are now seven new workers on the schedule, which could severely impact the effort they have all worked so hard on. 

Starbucks workers recall seeing an increase in corporate presence at the store when they began to go public with their intentions to unionize. Kylie Throckmorton says that an investigation had been conducted a month prior on the union committee and other baristas. The protocols that Starbucks say the baristas violated extend from being seen without a mask to entering back-of-house while off duty. The former baristas have expressed that the policy violations that led to their dismissal have been selectively enforced and that store managers have done much of the same without facing any punishment.

Refusing to be silenced, the fired workers held a rally outside of the store to speak out against Starbucks’ attempts to make workers fearful of unionizing. Beto Sanchez expressed in an interview with a local news station: “We are here protesting because they felt it was much more necessary to get rid of a third of the store, at this point, than to allow us to have our organized union. And they thought apparently that they are taking care of us better than we are. Even though they’ve been exposing us to COVID multiple times, not following health codes, keeping people [at work] while they’re sick, not paying people — apparently, they are doing a better job.” Starbucks Workers United has also filed unjust firing complaints against the company.

Former Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, along with the Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and some other local politicians, have sent Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson an open letter where they state the illegality of firing workers for organizing: “If the union organizing played even a partial role in the firings, it would violate the National Labor Relations Act — as you well know, since the NLRB found your company to have engaged in just such retaliatory behavior in 2019 and 2020 … For your company’s sake, and for the well-being of the community we represent, we call upon you to reverse the termination decisions, and to allow the union organizing effort to proceed without any interference by your company.”

Employees in the United States work and organize within the confines of very weak labor laws. The Economic Policy Institute found that employers were charged with violating federal law in 41.5% of all NLRB-supervised union elections in 2016 and 2017. Employers also threatened and/or retaliated against workers in nearly a third of all elections. And this is almost surely an undercount because companies are oftentimes able to avoid any legal ramifications by coming up with other excuses for firing union organizers, which makes it hard to prove that it was in fact retaliatory.

Starbucks denies that the firing of these workers had anything to do with their organizing efforts, but former store manager at the Poplar-Highland location, Emmy Holden, explained that if Starbucks had fully exercised these store policies to the extent of termination then they would have no one to work! Under normal circumstances, there is a process of corrective action that takes place before a worker is fired, especially for violations that are not considered egregious and it is very rare that workers are immediately fired for these violations.

The former workers at the Memphis Starbucks store urge workers to continue organizing at stores across the country as an act of solidarity against the company’s intimidation tactics. Additionally, Starbucks Workers United is asking for supporters to sign their petition calling on Starbucks to sign the non-interference and fair election principles

Voices from the Chicago solidarity rally

On Feb. 15, Starbucks Workers United held rallies for the seven fired Memphis workers in Memphis, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and Peoria. 

Starbucks workers were joined for a lively rally outside the company’s corporate office in downtown Chicago by community members, SEIU workers, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation, as well as city council members Daniel La Spata and Byron Sigcho-Lopez.

Around 40 people picketed in the windy lakefront weather, chanting, “Get up, Get down, Chicago is a union town!” The momentum only increased throughout the two-hour picket and was met with supportive honks and cheers from passing cars and pedestrians. 

Earlier in the month, Starbucks Workers United held two pickets during captive audience meetings, and the company’s union-busting attempts continue to be met with resistance from workers and community members.

The picket kicked off with some speeches of solidarity with Memphis from local Starbucks workers who are engaged in the unionization process. One worker, Logan, addressed the crowd: “We’re here to demand the jobs back of the seven from Memphis that were wrongfully terminated,” which was met with a roar of applause and cheers from the crowd and passersby. 

One worker at a store preparing to unionize, who asked to remain anonymous, spoke to Liberation News regarding the firings in Memphis: “We really know that [Starbucks] crossed a line here, but it’s going to backfire. The intimidation isn’t working. We’re coming together across the country, nationwide everyone is rallying behind it.”

Another Starbucks worker Emilia told Liberation News, “They tried to put out this fire by firing the unionizing workers in Memphis, but they actually just poured gasoline on it.”

Shabbir Manjee contributed to this article.

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