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If the point of Howard Schultz coming back to Starbucks was to convince employees to turn away from the enormous organizing drive happening at his company, he’s not off to a great start. Schultz officially returned to Starbucks as interim CEO Monday, and held a town hall meeting with workers—the company refers to them as “partners”—in which he said that companies like Starbucks are being “assaulted” by unionization campaigns, such as the ones at nearly 200 Starbucks stores throughout the country since a store in Buffalo won its election in December.
The same day, an outspoken organizer and shift supervisor at a store in Arizona was fired, the latest in a string of firings of organizers across the country.Schultz, the longtime former CEO of the coffee giant, who briefly flirted with running for president in 2020 as an independent, was announced as the interim CEO of Starbucks last month after former CEO Kevin Johnson retired. The end of Johnson’s tenure was marked by a flurry of union organizing at Starbucks. Since a store in Buffalo voted to unionize in December, nine more stores have voted in favor of unionizing, while just one voted against it. More than 150 stores in dozens of states are set to vote in the coming weeks, according to Recode. Schultz brought up unions during the town hall Monday, saying the topic was “a little sensitive, because I’ve been coached a bit.”“We can’t ignore what is happening in the country as it relates to companies throughout the country being assaulted, in many ways, by the threat of unionization,” Schultz said in a clip published by More Perfect Union. Schultz went on to say that he’s “not anti-union” but “pro-Starbucks,” according to a partial transcript of his comments the company provided to VICE News.
At the same time, according to people who were on the call, Schultz echoed rhetoric that’s common among anti-union executives and managers, calling unions “outside organizations” and referring to Starbucks as “a company that does not need someone in between us and our people.” Schultz also pointed to how the company has grown since he bought it in 1987—when it had just 11 stores—as proof it doesn’t need a union.“I took us all the way today,” Schultz said. “We didn’t get here by having a union.”Even before he returned as interim CEO, Schultz met with employees in Buffalo who were attempting to unionize, during which he recalled a conversation with a rabbi who told him concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust shared their blankets with other people who didn’t have them. “So much of that story is threaded into what we have tried to do at Starbucks is share our blanket,” Schultz told attendees. Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges told VICE News that Schultz’s comments Monday were aimed at people who he says began working at Starbucks with the intent of starting unions. Borges pointed to a tweet Buffalo organizer Jaz Brisack posted after the town hall, in which Brisack referenced her time on a campaign to organize Nissan workers in Mississippi. (Brisack did not immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE News.)
But Brisack is a legitimate employee at Starbucks, one whom the company itself decided to hire. Brisack did not began agitating for a union until eight months into working at a store in Buffalo as a barista, according to a Washington Post profile published in February, and when she was asked by coworkers if she’d planned to organize the store when she started, she told them: “I’d try to organize any place I worked, but this wasn’t a grand scheme.” Roughly an hour after the conclusion of Schultz’s town hall, the company fired Laila Dalton, a 19-year-old shift supervisor and organizer at a store in Phoenix—one day before the store’s employees were to begin voting on a union. The National Labor Relations Board issued a formal complaint against Starbucks last month for its treatment of Dalton, finding that Starbucks retaliated against her and another employee because they supported the union. Borges said Dalton had been fired because she admitted to recording conversations involving store managers that she wasn’t part of. Starbucks Workers United said in a tweet that Dalton’s firing was “blatant retaliation against [a] union leader” and that the company “must be held accountable for their unconscionable actions.” (Dalton did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Dalton told More Perfect Union that she recorded the store’s management in order to obtain proof of alleged harassment she’d received.“I’m always expecting it, because I’m harassed every single day,” Dalton said. “I never know when someone’s going to come harassing me, so I always want to be recording.”
Dalton isn’t the first outspokenly pro-union Starbucks employee to be fired. In February, seven Starbucks workers at a store in Memphis were fired after a TV crew interviewed them inside of the store they were working to organize. And several workers in Buffalo-area stores that have voted to unionize have been fired, including Angel Krempa, an organizer at a store in nearby Depew, New York who was fired Friday. The company said Krempa was fired for being late to work twice, but Krempa and the union have said she complied with company policy in letting her supervisors know ahead of time. In a statement, Starbucks Workers United compared Dalton’s situation to those of the workers in Memphis. “Laila Dalton was fired for being a leader of the organizing efforts at her store and for very vocally holding the company accountable for their blatant retaliation against her,” the union said.“We are demanding that Starbucks end their war against partners organizing across the country and respect our right to organize. We will hold Starbucks accountable both in the court of law and in the court of public opinion.”Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.