Starbucks the coffee chain has brought back founder Howard Schultz to lead the effort to defeat a union drive that is still spreading across the country, and that workers allege is flagrantly violating federal law as it seeks to slow their momentum.
Currently, 176 Starbucks locations have filed for National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) elections since the first union campaign at a corporate-owned store in the United States went public in Buffalo, New York last year.
Starbucks is favouring a particular method – firing union leaders. Workers at several stores say they have been terminated in retaliation for legally protected union activities. Early allegations came in Memphis, Tennessee in February, when Starbucks fired seven workers after they announced their union drive.
The company has said that the workers were fired on the pretext of work place conduct violations, and while Starbucks Workers United has filed unfair Labour practice (ULP) charges against the company alleging retaliation, the understaffed NLRB has yet to make a judgment, and the workers remain without their jobs.
In recent days, with Schultz back at the helm – the sackings appear to have accelerated. Several union leaders in Buffalo have been fired or forced out.
Three workers have been fired in Overland Park, Kansas, where the remaining workers are now on strike. And on Monday, Laila Dalton, the nineteen-year-old Starbucks barista in Phoenix, Arizona whose prior claims of retaliation were substantiated by the NLRB merely weeks ago, lost her job.
As in the case of the other recent terminations, Starbucks says that Dalton was fired for violating company policies, telling the Independent that she was ‘written up numerous times for behaviour that is not reflective of the company’s mission and values’.
The company has pointed specifically to her recording interactions with management ‘without their consent, which is against the law in Arizona’.
This is despite Arizona being a one-party consent state. (recording a conversation without a person’s knowledge is permitted in Arizona as long as there is consent from ‘at least one party to the conversation’).
But Dalton and her co-workers say her termination was retaliation.
In the days leading up to her firing, Dalton had been voicing her fears about such an outcome on social media and had mentioned increasing harassment and surveillance at her store just weeks ago. It is rare for a company to violate the law in such a high-profile case — evidence that Starbucks is desperate to blunt workers’ momentum.
Dalton said: ‘On Monday, I was fired. My shift started at 12.30pm, and at 1.20pm, I saw the district manager and another district manager.
‘Every time my district manager asks to talk with me, I always say, “Am I going to get fired today?’’ and she always says: ‘‘You’re not going to get fired today.’’ But when I said it on Monday, she didn’t say that.
‘She said: ‘‘Let’s just have a conversation.’’ So, I had the feeling that they were going to fire me.
‘The first thing she did was give me a final written warning.
‘That warning was about an alleged violation of a Covid procedure in January, on a day when I wasn’t working but had come into the store to pick up a friend. Weirdly, this final written warning said that it was created on March 18th, but it wasn’t given to me until April 4th.
‘Right after they gave me that final written warning, they gave me the next sheet of paper, which was a notice of separation, and it was for totally different reasons.
‘Meanwhile, I’ve been so public in the media. It was the day before our ballots went out and it was an hour after Howard got in.
‘I’m ready to be reinstated, even though I know that might take two to three months. But Starbucks’s reputation will be totally ruined.
‘My union rep has always said that the more public you are, the safer you are, and I have always been very public.
‘That Starbucks keep sacking staff the day before our ballots come out might end up with them having to forfeit the election if we lose because it’s clear intimidation. It affects workers when they fire the most outspoken person.
‘Starbucks is going to go with intimidation tactics, but today, we came out to our rally and had a great turnout. We raised so much attention that, according to my co-worker, the two managers at the store were hiding by the bathroom, making calls.
‘Then, my district manager showed up along with someone who we don’t know but who looks like they’re from corporate.
‘So, we were bringing a lot of attention. Now they’re starting to pull workers one by one, asking them about the election. I’m not sure of the questions yet, but I’ve been told that my district manager is pulling everyone aside to try to talk to them about the election and about why I was separated.
‘Everything they’re doing is winning more people to the union. I think with people in my generation going through this and posting about it on social media, people are realising that their best friends are getting treated horribly. A lot of my friends never knew Starbucks was like this.
‘They just expect the whole food industry to be a struggle. Once I tell them how much Starbucks can give us, they realise that we shouldn’t be allowing them to treat us like this.
‘They can afford to pay us more, to give us more benefits, and to treat us better, but they don’t because they’re greedy. That shows that they don’t care about us, that they see us as just bodies and a source of investment.
‘So, this definitely encourages people to want to have a voice and figure out ways to have a voice, which is by unionising.
‘This is the start of a new era. Definitely. I see unions being a big thing for our generation, and I’m so excited that people want to stand up for themselves and are ready to be treated more fairly.
Meanwhile, staff at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art are fighting to join the Cultural Workers United section of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
The AFSCME trade union issued a statement from the museum workers, saying: ‘We believe that the formation of our union, Cultural Workers United-AFSCME DC57, is the logical next step in this endeavour for a more egalitarian work place.
‘Today, we told the Sonoma Valley Art Museum we are forming a union! We hope they will voluntarily recognise us.
‘With a union, we hope to strengthen our community and show, not just through our exhibitions but through everything we do, all the ways we include the people of Sonoma, that the museum serves us.’
The announcement was signed by the CWU Organising Committee, which listed members Diane Egger-Bovet, Patricia Liverman, Amelia Martinez, Kathy McHoes and Sarah Parker.
The museum employs 19 staff and the group says it has a ‘super majority’ support for the union.
The announcement read: ‘We are poised at a pivotal moment in history where our institution must actively align its actions with its professed values, both within the public eye as well as in private.’
In forming the union, the group says it will commit to the following: ‘Creating transparent policies and practices; ensuring management accountability to staff concerns; advocating for an equitable work place; thoroughly embedding diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion into our work place; and working alongside the leadership to shape the future of the organisation.’