Last Wednesday, Kolton Gosnell and his co-workers at a Starbucks store in Wisconsin tentatively won an election to join more than 50 stores around the country in unionizing with Starbucks Workers United. On Friday, the company fired him—the same day it was slapped with a massive National Labor Relations Board complaint alleging the company had retaliated against dozens of workers for their union organizing.
Gosnell, a 21-year-old college student, had worked at a Starbucks in Plover, Wisconsin, since 2021 as a shift supervisor. Gosnell told VICE News he and his co-workers initially organized for reasons similar to the hundreds of stores that have filed for union elections around the country: They’re seeking higher wages, better scheduling, and better benefits.
They’re also unionizing for better safety protections. In September, fire crews responded to the Plover Starbucks after a water heater filled the room with smoke, according to the Point/Plover Metro Wire.
“We have equipment that’s falling apart,” Gosnell, who wasn’t present during the incident, told VICE News. “Water leaked off a cracked countertop onto electrical wiring and started smoking up the entire store.” Gosnell told VICE News the countertops still have not been fixed.
Gosnell said that after his store filed for a union election in February, he made it clear which side he was on. “I wore a union pin, I spoke at rallies, and then on social media I was pretty [vocal],” Gosnell said. Since workers at the Plover store filed for an NLRB election in February, they’ve filed two complaints against Starbucks alleging the store attempted to coerce and intimidate them into voting against the union.
Others have appeared to face similar anti-union activity from Starbucks. Starbucks workers have filed more than 100 unfair labor practice charges against the company, and more than 20 pro-union employees around the country, whom Starbucks has fired over a variety of alleged wrongdoings, including leaving work at the end of a scheduled shift and breaking a sink, say they’ve been fired or pushed out of their jobs in retaliation for organizing.
On April 12, according to a “separation agreement” that Gosnell’s managers gave him when he was fired and that VICE News has reviewed, Gosnell went behind the counter and into the back room, performed work tasks, and was in the store after it closed while he wasn’t clocked in. Gosnell told VICE News he came in because it was a co-worker’s birthday and he went into the backroom to look in the schedule and make himself a drink.
Though the firing notice says what Gosnell did was against Starbucks policy, Gosnell said employees frequently flout the policy without consequences.
“It’s never been a rule that’s been enforced, people clocking out and then making themselves a drink before they go,” Gosnell told VICE News. “Or even college students who work in our store, and while they’re studying, they’ll just go behind the bar and make them.”
The firing notice also accuses him of making “eyeglasses” out of cups, though Gosnell told VICE News he wasn’t the worker who did that. After the publication of this story, Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said that Gosnell “went to the back of house and behind the counter to socialize with partners [Starbucks’ term for employees] and creat[e] disruptions,” and that staying in the store after it was closed is “a well-known violation and safety issue and is cause for immediate termination.”
Borges also said Gosnell violated the company’s COVID-19 protocols and said the store had video evidence of him making the glasses. Gosnell told VICE News he has filed an unfair labor practice against Starbucks alleging they fired him in retaliation for organizing.
“This is just an example of arbitrary enforcement of vague rules that haven’t been enforced before being used to rid the company of union organizers,” Gosnell said in a text message Monday afternoon. “This is more of just the same thing that we’ve seen in Buffalo, which Starbucks just received a massive complaint for, I’m confident the NLRB will rule in my favor and all unjustly fired union organizers similarly.”
On May 4, Gosnell and his co-workers won the initial count 7-5, though several ballots are being challenged by the company. If the result stands, the Plover Starbucks will be the second unionized location in Wisconsin, where several stores have filed for representation with both Workers United and the UFCW.
Gosnell was first made aware he was being investigated on April 28. On Friday, his district manager and a store manager from another location came into the Plover store and fired him.
Gosnell told VICE News he had never been written up for anything before this incident, but the firing notice says that he was fired anyway “due to the serious nature of these breaches in policy and safety and security risk.”
Gosnell said it was “interesting” that he was fired for posing a safety risk, after the fire incident at his store last year. “It just makes it even more blatantly obvious that this is a reprisal against myself for being a union leader at my store,” Gosnell told VICE News. “Starbucks has also continually pushed off a very much-needed remodel for our café from early 2020 to now mid 2023.”
Gosnell was fired Friday morning. Later that day, the National Labor Relations Board issued an enormous complaint against Starbucks, accusing the company of more than 200 violations of federal labor law and retaliating against dozens of pro-union employees in the Buffalo, New York, area alone.
The complaint, filed by NLRB Buffalo Regional Director Linda Leslie, names six workers whom the NLRB believes were unjustly fired, including former shift supervisor Angel Krempa. The NLRB also alleged she was retaliated against for testifying against Starbucks at an NLRB hearing.
The complaint, which is just the latest one filed against Starbucks, says the company retaliated against the Buffalo workers “because employees formed the union and engaged in concerted activities, and to discourage employees from engaging in these activities.”
“Starbucks is finally being held accountable for the union-busting rampage they went on,” Danny Rojas, a shift supervisor who was fired earlier this year, said in a statement. “Today, the NLRB is validating that the psychological warfare and intimidation tactics that took place in Starbucks stores was unacceptable.”
The complaint also demands that Starbucks interim CEO Howard Schultz or executive vice president Rossann Williams read a notice of employees’ union rights, or be present while an NLRB agent reads such a notice “at a meeting or meetings scheduled to ensure the widest possible attendance,” including, potentially a video.
A Starbucks spokesperson told VICE News that the complaint “involves important issues” but that the company “does not agree that the claims have merit.”
“It is the beginning of a litigation process that permits both sides to be heard and to present evidence,” spokesperson Reggie Borges said. “We believe the allegations contained in the complaint are false, and we look forward to presenting our evidence when the allegations are adjudicated.”
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