Inside the Wild Starbucks Manager Kidnapping Incident That Wasn’t

A manager accused workers of kidnap and assault, but police didn’t bring charges and a spokesperson said the “allegations were not true.”
Starbucks workers hold a rally on October 05, 2022 in New York City.(Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

It’s the kidnapping that maybe wasn’t. 

In August, a Starbucks manager accused Natalie Mann and several of her coworkers in Anderson, South Carolina of kidnapping and assaulting her during a protest demanding raises the company had offered at other stores. 

The manager, Melissa Morris, told police that the employees “would not let her leave until they got a raise” and that one employee “assaulted her,” according to a police report obtained by VICE News. 


The company suspended the workers temporarily and with pay and banned them from entering Starbucks stores, because the company said, in a statement to the Daily Beast at the time, that they made the manager feel “threatened and unsafe.” Starbucks even said it had been advised by the police to suspend the workers.

But later, after an investigation and a viral TikTok video showing part of the confrontation, police said this never happened and closed the investigation without bringing charges. 

The company ultimately fired three of the employees involved—for a completely unrelated incident—while Mann and her other coworkers were finally reinstated earlier this month. But last week, she gave her two weeks’ notice. 

“I remember sitting in the back on [my] first day back, and I just felt so unwelcome,” Mann, a shift supervisor, told VICE News. “I couldn’t really do this anymore. I was panicking…I felt so sick coming back to work.” 

On Monday, Mann and seven of her coworkers, all of whom were accused of kidnapping their boss, filed a lawsuit against Starbucks and the manager in South Carolina state court, alleging defamation and charging that Starbucks’ management “worked hand in hand” with Morris to file a false police report. The workers are seeking compensatory and punitive damages as well as an injunction against “further statements that Plaintiffs engaged in assault and kidnapping.”


It might seem far-fetched for the world’s largest coffee company to face accusations from its own employees of effectively orchestrating a fake kidnapping. But since the Starbucks union drive exploded this year, with 250 stores across the country unionized in less than a year, the relationship between the company and its workers has been almost entirely acrimonious.  

Pro-union Starbucks workers have accused the company of hundreds of violations of labor law, including retaliatory firings, and the National Labor Relations Board has taken the company to court over several of these claims. A former manager in Buffalo testified before the NLRB in August that he was encouraged by higher-ups to target pro-union workers with write-ups. Starbucks has repeatedly denied all allegations that it’s retaliating against pro-union workers.   


Starbucks did not respond to a request to speak with Morris, but denied the allegations in an email Monday. “We are reviewing the details of this matter and look forward to defending the company against the allegations made,” spokesperson Andrew Trull told VICE News. 

“No Starbucks partner has been or will be disciplined for supporting or engaging in lawful union activity—but interest in a union does not exempt partners from following policies and procedures that apply to all partners,” Trull added. “ We remain committed to maintaining a safe, welcoming environment for our customers, our partners and the community.”

But though the investigation has been closed and some of the workers involved have returned to the store, the allegation of a violent crime has had real-world consequences for the employees — and now they want to tell that story in court. Starbucks Workers United said Monday that this is the first time workers have filed a lawsuit against the company. 

In the lead-up to the alleged kidnapping, Aneil Tripathi, a union organizer and one of the workers accused of holding Morris hostage, said he and his coworkers grew particularly frustrated with a store manager they described as absent and a company that didn’t listen to their concerns.  Tripathi had been there for a long time; he started at Starbucks at the age of 16 and worked for the company for more than three years. 


On the heels of the first Starbucks Workers United win in Buffalo, his coworkers filed for a union in March. In June, they voted unanimously to unionize, which was notable not least because just 1 percent of private sector employees in South Carolina are unionized, the lowest rate in the country. 

The workers went on strike in both June and July, and after Starbucks implemented nationwide wage increases for non-union stores only—the company has said it’s prohibited by labor law from raising wages for union members, a claim labor lawyers have found dubious—Tripathi and his coworkers decided to “march on the boss”—a protest where employees stop working, confront their boss, and raise grievances. The day of the alleged kidnapping, of course, happened to be Morris’ first (and according to workers VICE News spoke with, only) day working at the store. 


Video from the incident, which has been viewed more than 11 million times on TikTok, shows Morris on the phone with someone from Starbucks while surrounded by at least a dozen workers. She gets up from a table and then makes her way outside, pushing through one worker whom she doesn’t ask to move, and who doesn’t move.

“Why are you pushing him?” Tripathi is heard saying in the video. 

“We followed her a little bit, but we kept our distance, we were a good five to 10 feet away,” Tripathi told VICE News. (The video, which is 24 seconds long, briefly shows multiple workers trailing behind Morris at the end.) 

Tripathi said Morris later gathered her things and left, and the workers decided to go back to work rather than strike. 

“We thought nothing of it,” Tripathi said of the confrontation.

But a few days later, Anderson County Sheriff’s deputies came into the store and asked to speak with employees who were involved in the incident. “They tell me that our store manager brought charges of assault and kidnapping to them and they’re investigating that,” Tripathi recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a new one.’”

During a “town hall” meeting with workers in April, Starbucks interim CEO Howard Schultz said that U.S. companies “are being assaulted, in many ways, by the threat of unionization.” But in this case, union members were accused of literal, not figurative, assault. 


On August 6, the company suspended the workers with pay and banned them from entering any Starbucks store. “We hear  the typical union-busting that Starbucks has done, firing, suspensions, it’s kind of usual at this point. But this is a whole new level,” Tripathi said. 

Starbucks later issued a statement saying Morris “felt threatened and unsafe as a result of conduct by 11 store partners.” 

The lawsuit filed Monday alleges that Morris, “in apparent coordination with Starbucks upper management and its counsel,” falsely filed a police report. The workers’ lawyers also wrote in the filing that Starbucks “orchestrated the dissemination of this false report” by issuing the statement, and that the company “recklessly ignored a publicly available video that discredited the store manager’s account of events.”

In September, the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office closed the investigation and publicly said the accusations of kidnapping and assault were false. “After talking with all the employees and seeing the TikTok video that an employee posted from the event, none of the allegations were true,” a police spokesperson told The State

“The employees did not stop [Morris] from leaving and did not put their hands on her, which is what the boss reported had happened,” the spokesperson said at the time. “She is the one who initiated any kind of contact when she pushed past one of the employees as she was walking out of the door.” (The Anderson County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News Tuesday.)


Mann, who was also suspended, said the experience was crushing for her, and she sought “extensive therapy and dealt with numerous breakdowns” as a result.

“It was incredibly dehumanizing,” Mann told VICE News. “Almost every day, I felt like the world was closing in on me,” Mann told VICE News.

Mann was reinstated after the investigation concluded, though she said she received a “final written warning.” But Tripathi and four other workers were fired on Sept. 2, which Starbucks said was because they entered the store while it was closed without authorization on July 24—before the incident with Morris took place.

The workers filed an unfair labor practice charge alleging retaliatory firings. Starbucks did not respond for comment from VICE News Tuesday on Tripathi’s firing, but denied allegations of retaliation in a statement to The State last month.

Tripathi said he was driven to sue Starbucks not for financial reasons, but to “highlight what kind of company Starbucks is.” 

“The big thing I want is for the public to see the kind of menace that Starbucks has become, and how far they’re willing to go to keep the unions out of the store,” Tripathi said. “They’re willing to have them arrested under false allegations, file false police reports, and do all these things to get rid of the union leaders in our store.”

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