The Starbucks Workers United hub in Buffalo on November 16, 2021. (Libby March for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
In the three years she worked at a Starbucks in Michigan, Hannah Whitbeck says she was only late to work once, when she got into a car accident. On another occasion, she says her appendix exploded during her shift, but she finished work anyway because no one else could close the store. But on Monday afternoon, the shift supervisor and leading organizer at the Main and Liberty store in Ann Arbor was fired from her job — which she says was retaliation for her efforts to unionize her store.
Whitbeck is at least the fourth vocal Starbucks union organizer to be fired since April 4, the day Howard Schultz returned as the interim CEO of the company. And the store she works at in Ann Arbor is one of at least 200 that have filed for union recognition with the National Labor Relations Board; of the stores whose elections have been tallied so far, workers at 18 of 19 stores have voted for a union, including two in Boston that won their elections unanimously on Monday.
By all accounts, the 23-year-old Whitbeck was a star employee (Starbucks calls them “partners”): She told VICE News she’d had no write-ups during her three years at the store, and Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said she’d had “no prior issues.” But the store fired her on Monday for an incident dated to February 27, when Whitbeck left at the end of her shift. “There was a partner that had gotten left alone on the floor because it was past my [clock] out time, and the other shift supervisor was told they would need to go on their lunch before I was out, and they refused,” Whitbeck told VICE News. “So they left after I was out, and because I didn’t stay over and left at my scheduled time, I was terminated because I left that partner alone on the floor.”Whitbeck told VICE News that her coworker, a barista, was left alone in the store for 10 minutes. The separation notice Starbucks gave Whitbeck says she “failed to communicate in line with Starbucks mission and values and failed to meet expectations… including acting in violation of Starbucks safety and security standard.”
Borges said that leaving a barista alone was a “huge safety concern,” even for ten minutes, and regardless of the fact that Whitbeck had finished her scheduled shift. Borges said Whitbeck’s dismissal was justified even though it was her first strike.Whitbeck was on the union organizing committee at her store, telling VICE News she was upfront with management about her involvement in the union once it went public, and saying in a sworn affidavit, obtained by VICE News, that she wore a pro-union button to work every day. She also appeared in a Michigan Live story last week after legislators in her county passed a resolution to support Starbucks workers.
Whitbeck said that she expected the company would eventually fire her. “I kind of figured it would happen sooner rather than later with the union-busting going on, but it would have been nice if it was for a legitimate reason,” she told VICE News.Before she was fired, Whitbeck filed two unfair labor practice (ULP) charges with the NLRB, alleging in sworn affidavits that her duties had changed and her hours and those of her coworkers had been cut in retaliation for organizing. Public records show that the first ULP, filed in February, was withdrawn when Starbucks Workers United filed a charge alleging retaliation on a national level while another one, filed in March, is still open.
Starbucks Workers United has alleged that Starbucks is cutting workers’ hours in retaliation for the union campaign and filed a ULP last month over the reductions. Borges told VICE News that Starbucks cutting hours is not in retaliation for organizing, but rather due to a “seasonal evaluation” of the company’s needs. A sampling of Whitbeck’s schedule during her time at Starbucks, however, shows that her hours in February 2021, March 2021, and February 2022 were all roughly the same, more than 35 hours a week. But according to documentation of her schedule provided by both Whitbeck and Starbucks, after the week beginning February 28 of this year—when she believes the retaliation against her started—she has been scheduled to work more than 30 hours per week just once. In an email, the company referenced four days during that period where Whitbeck took paid time off.For comparison, during the first eight weeks of the year Whitbeck worked more than 30 hours a week five times. And in December, she worked at least 30 hours a week for three weeks in a row.
Whitbeck said in a sworn affidavit obtained by VICE News that the only explanation she ever got from her store manager was that the previous store manager had “made a mistake” in the schedule.
Starbucks has repeatedly denied it’s retaliating against pro-union employees. But the NLRB found last month that Starbucks had retaliated against organizers Laila Dalton and Alyssa Sanchez at a store in Phoenix—both have now been fired, Dalton’s firing coming less than a month after the complaint was issued. The NLRB also confirmed it would find Starbucks illegally fired seven pro-union workers in Memphis in February, unless the company settles with the former workers. At least 88 ULPs have been filed against Starbucks since September of last year, more than half of all ULPs made against the company since April 2001, according to NLRB records.
The company is facing several more unfair labor practice charges as well. On Monday, two days after a store in Raleigh, North Carolina fired 20-year-old barista and union organizer Sharon Gilman for an incident in February where they alleged she broke a three-compartment sink on purpose while washing dishes, the union filed a ULP on behalf of Gilman, alleging retaliation. Dalton, who was fired on April 4, said Monday that she’d also filed another charge with the NLRB against Starbucks.Whitbeck’s store is one of five in Ann Arbor to file for a union. When they went public with their union effort on February 4, Whitbeck and her coworkers cited “high management and partner turnover and continued staffing issues impacting our daily work lives and stress levels on the job.”
“We have put our lives on the line to serve the public and further this company's success,” the workers wrote, referencing their work through the pandemic. “Things need to change. We need to move from a system that treats partners as disposable employees to a more sustainable, true partnership.”Whitbeck said that she loved her job, mostly because of her coworkers, but that the company has changed since she began working there three years ago. “It’s not customer-focused anymore, or partner-focused. It’s money-focused,” she said.“I was really hoping with the union stuff, we would be able to get that more back into perspective and try and get that restarted, but hopefully, it’ll continue even if I’m not there anymore.”Whitbeck said she plans to file another charge with the NLRB alleging her firing was retaliatory, and that she hopes to get her job back.“I love all my coworkers more than words can ever say, and this happening has literally been devastating,” she said. “I’ll do what I can to be reinstated and try to get everything back on track. But we’ll see what happens.”Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.