Lateness, Cursing, a Broken Sink: Starbucks Keeps Firing Pro-Union Employees

At least 18 pro-union employees have been fired since February, in what workers say is an attempt to stop an increasingly popular union campaign.

Apr 19 2022, 2:11pm

More than a dozen current and former Starbucks employees told VICE News the company is punishing workers for being vocally supportive of unionizing.

Over the past two months, Starbucks has fired workers across the country for: allegedly breaking a sink on purpose; leaving at the end of a shift while one other worker was working; “safety violations” after being interviewed inside the store by a television crew after-hours; entering the store alone when arriving to work early; allegedly being late to work without letting anyone know ahead of time; allegedly recording supervisors without their permission; allegedly failing to close the store properly; and more. 

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All of these now-former employees were all publicly supportive of the ongoing push to unionize the coffee giant. And they all say they were actually fired in retaliation for their organizing efforts. 

“They were just waiting for the right moment to do it,” said 21-year-old Angel Krempa, a former shift supervisor at a recently-unionized store in Depew, New York, who received a “final written warning” for swearing in the lead-up to her firing. “And they like to do it when people are the most vulnerable.”

Starbucks has repeatedly denied claims of retaliation against union organizers, but at least 18 pro-union Starbucks employees have been terminated since February, when the company fired seven workers in Memphis after a local television crew interviewed them inside their store. 

So far, however, the firings don’t seem to have stemmed the tide of organizing at Starbucks stores. Since employees at a Starbucks in Buffalo voted to unionize with Starbucks Workers United on Dec. 9, more than 200 stores nationwide have announced their intent to unionize. 20 stores have voted to unionize. 

“If they saw that someone like me who has never really done anything wrong in five years is fired with no warning or anything, it’s kind of like, ‘Maybe we need some kind of protections for our jobs.’”

The reasons for unionization vary from store to store, but workers have voiced concern about inadequate staffing, health and safety issues, frustrations related to customers, and a desire to have a greater say in the workplace.

Brian Nuzzo, a 35-year-old former shift supervisor at a now-unionized store in Rochester, New York, worked at Starbucks for five and a half years before he was fired for opening the store alone. Nuzzo told VICE News that on March 4, he clocked in early because he needed to use the store’s resources to “make a plan” for opening. That morning, he said, three co-workers had called out sick after having COVID-like symptoms. “I broke the policy; I’m not gonna argue that,” Nuzzo said. “But they didn’t really care about the extenuating circumstances.” 

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Nuzzo told VICE News he believes his firing fueled support for the union, and last week, his former store voted 10-3 to unionize. “I hate sounding like a martyr, but I think me getting fired kind of pushed some people on the fence to vote yes,” Nuzzo said earlier this month, shortly after his former co-workers won the vote. “If they saw that someone like me who has never really done anything wrong in five years is fired with no warning or anything, it’s kind of like, ‘Maybe we need some kind of protections for our jobs.’”

At Krempa’s store outside of Buffalo, she said the backlash she faced began in December, after she appeared before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to argue that Starbucks voting units should be individual stores instead of entire districts. That hearing took place on Dec. 2; on Dec. 7, her manager gave her a “final written warning”—which was Krempa’s first write-up in more than a year as an employee—for a Nov. 23 incident, when Krempa swore on the store floor. 

This has been a common complaint from workers—that they’ve faced increased scrutiny after announcing their intent to unionize. 

Krempa admits that she swore but said that at the time, the incident wasn’t treated as a big deal. “Nothing was said to me other than, ‘Hey, Angel, watch your mouth,’” Krempa said. “I was already told that it was OK.”

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Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges told VICE News that swearing on the floor is a fireable offense at Starbucks, but could not answer why Krempa’s managers gave her the write-up two weeks after the incident and days after her appearance at the NLRB hearing. 

Krempa alleges that retaliation continued in the months following that incident. In February, Krempa was written up after wearing several non-Starbucks pins after she had been asked to remove all but one, according to a “corrective action form” describing the incident which was obtained by VICE News. 

Krempa admits that she swore but said that at the time, the incident wasn’t treated as a big deal.

Starbucks also said that Krempa “was disrespectful to [her manager] during the conversation” and “raised her voice” at the manager. Krempa, on the other hand, said her manager attempted to talk to her when she was performing duties such as working the drive-thru and cleaning the oven, and Krempa claims she only firmly asked the manager to allow her to do her job. 

Krempa said that before this incident, she had always worn the pins—which Krempa said included one that read “Be Kind,” another displaying her pronouns, and a suicide prevention pin which said “It’s OK not to be OK” and is illustrated by two ghosts hugging each other—with no complaints. She also said she was wearing four, not six as her manager claimed. She later filed an unfair labor practice with the NLRB for retaliation. 

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This kind of pushback, workers said, is happening around the country. “I’ve seen [co-workers] wear stuff they’ve been wearing for months and months, and nobody ever cared," Madison Barriga, a 24-year-old barista at a store in Olympia, Washington, told VICE News. “And then the union started popping up, and all of a sudden, they started giving verbal warnings about dress code and more warnings about time and attendance.” 

In response to allegations that Starbucks was selectively enforcing its policies against pro-union workers, Borges said that employees’ “interest in a union does not exempt them from the standards we've always held” and that the company will continue enforcing our policies consistently for all [workers].”

Ultimately, Krempa was fired for two incidents in March after she was late to work, which she attributed to car trouble. In the first instance, on March 7, Krempa called a supervisor to let her know she would be late because her car had died. On March 20, she called the store shortly before her shift started, according to call logs viewed by VICE News. 

Less than two weeks later, she was fired for “violating Starbucks’ attendance and punctuality policy.” In her “separation notice” explaining why she’d been fired, Starbucks said that on the first occasion, Krempa “failed to call the store to notify the store manager she would be running late.” 

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Krempa said that doing so before the store opened would have been pointless: “It would have been stupid for me to call the store directly, because nobody was there. So I figured out who my opening supervisor was and I called them directly. And that’s the exact policy Starbucks wants me to follow. And I did it. And they say it never happened.”

Since September 2021, when workers in Buffalo went public with their intent to organize a union, there have been 94 unfair labor practice charges—which are allegations of federal labor law violations—filed against Starbucks

Jeffrey Hirsch, a labor law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill, told VICE News that generally speaking, it’s “very typical” for companies, both in unionization and employment discrimination cases, to claim they have valid reasons for disciplining and firing workers and thus have not broken federal labor laws. 

“Most of these cases are dealing with proving what the intent of the employer was,” Hirsch said. And even if the company is found guilty of retaliation, Hirsch said, the remedies for workers are limited under current law. 

Since September 2021, when workers in Buffalo went public with their intent to organize a union, there have been 94 unfair labor practice charges—which are allegations of federal labor law violations—filed against Starbucks with the NLRB. This is more than were filed in the preceding two decades combined according to the NLRB’s online case database.

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For the most part, the NLRB has been slow to handle such cases, and part of that may be because of the enormous upswing in union activity, at Starbucks and elsewhere. The NLRB said last week that union election filings increased 57 percent between October 1 and March 31, while unfair labor practice charges increased 14 percent.

The agency has also faced years of funding stagnation and has lost 30 percent of its staff in the last decade, HuffPost reported in March.

 “When you’re talking about an agency whose funding levels are already lower than it feels is justified and has been for a long time, and you add in this big upsurge in activity… all these representation elections, [it] has a huge impact on everything else that each regional office has to deal with,” Hirsch said. “You may even have some of these [unfair labor practices] cases that are getting kicked to the back of the line.”

But in the few retaliation cases the board has handled so far, it has sided with workers: Earlier this month, the NLRB said Starbucks had illegally fired the Memphis workers, and that the agency would issue another complaint against the coffee company if it doesn’t settle with them. 

Alyssa Sanchez, 23, told VICE News that she believes that she and her coworkers at a store in Phoenix were retaliated against shortly after managers found out they were organizing. When she asked for a change in her schedule to work only opening shifts so she could continue to attend flight school, Sanchez said her manager purposely ignored her requests. “She said that people's availability requests were just suggestions and she wasn't obligated to follow those, and started scheduling me for whatever she felt like scheduling me for,” Sanchez said.

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Sanchez’s manager also threatened to write her up for missing shifts which she had already told them she couldn’t make, Sanchez told VICE News. “She told me that my hours of availability did not meet the needs of the store,” Sanchez recalled. “We were so short-staffed, so it didn’t really add up.” 

Workers across the country have accused Starbucks of reducing hours in retaliation for organizing.

Sanchez ultimately quit, but told VICE News that she was “pushed into resigning.” 

The NLRB filed a complaint against Starbucks, finding that it ignored Sanchez’s availability—which “caused the termination” of Sanchez—because Sanchez, along with shift supervisor Laila Dalton, “formed, joined, or assisted the Union and engaged in concerted activities, and to discourage employees from engaging in these activities.” 

Other workers across the country have accused Starbucks of reducing hours in retaliation for organizing. Borges, the company’s spokesperson, denied that Starbucks has cut its workers’ hours in retaliation for organizing, and told VICE News that the reductions can largely be explained by the shifting seasonal needs of Starbucks stores or the inability of the company to accommodate some staffers’ scheduling requests.  

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But hours shifting can affect more than just wages. Since 2015, the company has offered to cover the cost of college tuition through Arizona State University’s online degree program for employees who work an average of 20 hours a week. “I literally go to Starbucks for free college, and they just took that away from me," Dalton told VICE News. “I’ll get it for the next semester and then it’s gone, because they fired me.”

On April 13, the NLRB filed another complaint against Starbucks over its treatment of Dalton—who was fired on April 4—and another employee. (The latest complaint was first reported by More Perfect Union.) In it, the NLRB accuses Starbucks of discriminating and retaliating against employees for union activity and for filing unfair labor practice charges against the company. The NLRB is now attempting to force Starbucks to physically and electronically distribute union rights to employees. 

Starbucks has consistently repeated that it respects its workers’ rights to organize and denies retaliating against vocal union organizers. Borges told VICE News that in every case where a union organizer has been fired, there’s a “clear track record addressing violations of policy.” 

Borges also said that all the recent firings of pro-union workers have been for justifiable reasons, and that “a partner’s interest in a union doesn’t exempt them from the standards that we’ve always held as a company.” 

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Since then, at least two more union organizers and employees—Raleigh, North Carolina,  barista Sharon Gilman and Ann Arbor, Michigan, shift supervisor Hannah Whitbeck—have been fired from their jobs and given letters that do not show they were given a “final written warning” before they were fired. Both Gilman and Whitbeck told VICE News they’d never been written up before; Borges later told VICE News that the things they were fired for justified immediate dismissal. 

“As much as there’s evidence of [employees] being fired,” Borges told VICE News, “there’s also evidence of partners picketing, striking, and talking publicly about the union that we haven’t taken any retaliatory actions against, and we have not done anything to suggest they need to not be talking about unions.”

Starbucks has been very clear, however, that it opposes unionization at its stores. The company set up a website to distribute anti-union talking points, arguing that the unions are “third-party representation” for workers rather than the workers representing themselves.

“We don’t believe having a union will meaningfully change or solve the problems you’ve identified in your stores,” the site says. “We know we aren’t perfect, but we believe our challenges are best addressed by working together.”

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The company has also hired Littler Mendelson, a major U.S. union avoidance law firm that employs more than 1,500 attorneys and has 75 offices worldwide, to represent the company in its efforts to avoid unionization and at the NLRB. 

Littler Mendelson’s website states that it “counsel[s] management on precise and compliant messaging to employees” and prepares “company-focused communication plans for employees that may include informational signs and posters, home letters, meeting materials, testimonial videos, social media postings, handouts and campaign websites.” 

“We don’t believe having a union will meaningfully change or solve the problems you’ve identified in your stores,” the site says. “We know we aren’t perfect, but we believe our challenges are best addressed by working together.”

Since the union drive in Buffalo went public last fall, the company has been accused of holding mandatory “captive audience” meetings—a favored strategy of companies opposing unions—something many companies have been criticized for using to push anti-union talking points in an attempt to dissuade workers from unionizing. Borges said in an email that Starbucks does not hold captive audience meetings and that “our meetings are not mandatory,” but some workers who spoke with VICE News said they’ve been compelled to see and hear anti-union talking points from their managers. 

Alyssa White, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks in Raleigh that went public with its union effort in February citing safety issues and “consistent understaffing,” said she had these meetings with managers at her store. “They only bothered doing two with me,” White, whose name was at the top of pro-union employees’ letter to then-CEO Kevin Johnson, told VICE News.

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 “A lot of it is misinformation,” White claimed of the hour-plus long meetings. She said they were told that the union can force them to strike—workers at the store would actually vote on such a decision—and that the union would be a third party rather than a voice for workers themselves. White said that employees are also often directed to a company website with anti-union talking points

The accusation that unions are somehow distinct from the workers themselves has also particularly irked employees who want to unionize. “They have to stop lying that it’s not baristas, that [unionizing workers] are a third party,” Krempa told VICE News. “I am only a third party now because they fired me.” 

Companies may also not be able to use captive audience meetings much longer: Last week, the NLRB’s top lawyer, General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, wrote a memo saying captive audience meetings “inherently involve an unlawful threat” to employees and that the NLRB should ban them

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And at Barriga’s store in Olympia, Starbucks management distributed a letter to partners pointedly suggesting that the company would use benefits and wages as leverage in negotiations. “If a union is certified, benefits and wages will essentially be frozen while the parties negotiate the contract,” said the letter, a screenshot of which was obtained by VICE News

“They are constantly putting up propaganda and anti-union nonsense in our store,” Billie Adeosun, a 27-year-old barista who works with Barriga and has worked at Starbucks for three years, told VICE News. “They discourage us from talking about it on the floor.” (The union filed an unfair labor practice charge against Starbucks in Olympia on March 8.) 

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Labor law experts have said that while Starbucks can’t unilaterally extend benefits—and under a union contract, they could not unilaterally reduce benefits or wages, either—they could still offer expanded benefits to unionized employees.

Borges told VICE News that the letter reflects the company’s position. “We cannot give benefits to partners in unionized stores unilaterally. We would first have to bargain with the union to do so,” Borges said. “That is what that letter conveys. It’s the law.” 

Since CEO Howard Schultz returned to Starbucks, the company has adopted an even more aggressive strategy to counter the unionization campaign. On April 4, his first day back, Schultz told employees in a town hall that U.S. companies were being “assaulted, in many ways, by the threat of unionization,” and described Starbucks as “a company that does not need someone in-between us and our people.” 

Borges told VICE News that during the meeting Schultz was specifically referring to workers like Jaz Brisack, a barista and leading organizer at the first store to unionize, in Buffalo, who has worked with the SEIU-affiliated labor union Workers United in various capacities since 2019. Brisack told VICE News her work with Workers United—she was paid a salary by the union in 2021, a federal disclosure form showed—was no secret to her co-workers. 

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“It is really kind of insulting,” Brisack told VICE News of the accusation that she’s something of an outside agitator. “The greatest thing about Starbucks is who they hired—a bunch of young activists who really care about each other and about the world. And that’s why this is happening.”

In another incident during a contentious meeting in Long Beach, California, last week, Schultz reportedly asked a leading union organizer, “If you hate Starbucks so much, why don’t you go somewhere else?”

Last week, Starbucks Workers United posted photos of flyers in some stores in Pittsburgh showing fake tweets attributed to the union, along with management talking points countering them. (One fake tweet was even dated “June 1,” though the Starbucks Workers United account was not started until August 2021.) 

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The number of firings also appears to be increasing since Schultz returned. Since April 4, at least four vocal pro-union employees have been let go: Dalton, Whitbeck, Gilman, and Doran, who was fired on April 5 from her job in Overland Park three days before the NLRB counted her store’s ballots.

Doran was fired on April 5 for “not securing the store at close” on March 28, two days after receiving a final written warning for another incident, according to her firing notice. Borges said that Doran “admitted” to closing the store improperly; she told VICE News that while it may have been possible she didn’t close the store correctly, she “didn’t 100 percent believe” she did.

The employees who spoke with VICE News all voiced a similar sentiment: Instead of dissuading people from voting for the union, the firings and alleged retaliation had only strengthened their solidarity.

In the wake of the firing of Doran—a trans woman who told VICE News she initially got the job for health insurance that covered facial feminization surgery—Overland Park Starbucks workers went on strike. And on April 5, the store voted 6-1 to unionize, but Starbucks challenged seven ballots—delaying a result for now.

The employees who spoke with VICE News all voiced a similar sentiment: Instead of dissuading people from voting for the union, the firings and alleged retaliation had only strengthened their solidarity. A pro-union barista in New Jersey said that due to the recent firings, “all of us have been more on edge and worried about our job safety.” 

“It’s incredibly disheartening that fighting for basic rights in the workplace can threaten our income we need to survive,” the worker said in a text message. “Still, with being worried about our jobs, most of us are incredibly confident about the actual unionization process.”

Adeosun, the barista in Olympia, agreed. “We’re just really unimpressed, but not at all terrified,” she said of Schultz’s return to the company. “We’re going to keep going as usual. We have a majority at our store, so we’re confident we're gonna get the vote.”

The union drive has so far been overwhelmingly successful in the stores where elections have been held. More than 20 stores have voted to unionize thus far, including several recent unanimous votes, in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Eugene, Oregon. Just two—one in Buffalo in December, and another in Springfield, Virginia, last week—have voted against unionization. 

“This is not us trying to assault this company,” Krempa said. “It’s really just the workers trying to hold the company accountable, and we should be able to do that, and they keep [depicting] us as these assailants.”

Correction: Angel Krempa is 21-years-old, not 23.

Tagged:

Union, labor rights, Howard Schultz, union busting, labor organizing , starbucks union

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