Starbucks Fired a Bunch of Pro-Union Workers After They Went on TV

Starbucks fired almost every member of the committee fighting to unionize a Memphis store, citing “safety and security violations.” The workers call it retaliation.
Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Starbucks fired nearly the entire organizing committee fighting to unionize a Memphis store on Tuesday, citing “safety and security violations.” The employees themselves, and the union backing them, however, say the firings were uniquely excessive, and that they were fired in retaliation for their organizing drive at a time when efforts to organize Starbucks stores have spread rapidly throughout the country.


Seven people were fired in total on Tuesday, according to Starbucks Workers United, the union backing organizing efforts at Starbucks stores across the country. Of the seven, five were on the union’s organizing committee, while the other two were pro-union, Starbucks Workers United told the Washington Post.

Since a store in Buffalo became the first to unionize in December, workers at more than 70 stores across the country have announced their intent to unionize

Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges told VICE News Wednesday that the firings revolved around a television interview workers conducted after hours with local Memphis TV station WMC inside the store, saying that the workers bringing colleagues who were off the clock as well as the TV crew into the store after it had closed were safety violations that justified their immediate firing.

Borges said that all Starbucks workers are trained in the “safety and security policies” the Memphis workers were fired for allegedly violating after the company concluded an investigation. 


“These egregious actions and blatant violations cannot be ignored,” Borges said in an email, saying the policies included “maintaining a secure work environment and safe security standards.” 

Nabretta Hardin, who was fired Tuesday after working as a barista for more than a year, pushed back against the company’s allegations. “​​They say they didn’t fire us for talking to the media, but it was obviously clear retaliation from them because they had to make up policies,” Hardin told VICE News. “[And] if they didn’t make up policies, it was policies that were never enforced before.” 

Hardin said that she and her coworkers were targeted because of their public organizing efforts. “Our names are publicly out on the petition,” Hardin said. “They knew we were supposed to be voting soon.”

Borges also said one employee “opened the store safe when the partner was not the designated cash controller.” That employee, Beto Sanchez, told the New York Times that he was normally authorized to open the safe since he’s a shift supervisor, and was opening the safe on the night of the interview to help a coworker. 

Though Starbucks maintains the firings were related to the union, retaliation is strikingly common in union campaigns in general. In 29% of all union elections in 2016-2017, employers were charged with illegally coercing, threatening, or retaliating against workers over their support of unions, according to a 2019 report by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. More than half of large employers over the same period were charged with at least one illegal act, EPI found.


Amy Holden, who spent more than nine years working for Starbucks and formerly managed the store before leaving in November, called the situation “unique,” and noted the timing of the conclusion of the company’s investigation into the incident comes shortly before workers at the store are set to begin voting.

“I’ve never seen people let go like this in this capacity at all,” Holden told VICE News. “Other stores have closed and partners have hung out afterwards, then they leave and go somewhere. It’s not uncommon.” Holden added that she “does understand the news media thing, but the media was sent to them,” and defended the employees. 

“If they were so concerned about safety and security and it was so egregious, why did it take them a month to terminate these partners?” Holden asked rhetorically. Borges said the investigation began during the week of Jan. 24, and said the decision was partially delayed by winter storms in the region.

Borges reiterated the company’s previous statements that it won’t interfere with its employees’ right to unionize, and said that the company would have “zero issues” if the interview had been done on the sidewalk outside of the store. 

This isn’t the first time, however, that Starbucks has been accused of retaliation. In July of last year, an NLRB judge found that the company had retaliated against two baristas in Philadelphia who sought to unionize their stores beginning in 2019, and ordered the company to cease and desist.


The Starbucks workers have already filed an unfair labor practice charge against Starbucks with the National Labor Relations Board, seeking an injunction that would immediately reinstate them to their jobs during the investigation into their claims. It’s the fourth complaint of this type alleging retaliation filed against Starbucks this year, according to NLRB records.

The firing of the Memphis workers, however, has not dampened organizing efforts around the country. On Thursday, workers at five more shops in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Long Island announced union drives, bringing the number of total shops who’ve filed for union recognition to 72, according to the union. 

“We are not here to point out previous critical missteps that have occurred, or to villainize, but to instead as for a seat at the table: an opportunity to work with Starbucks on equal footing to help create a better workplace that we can all agree on,” the organizing committee at a store in Manhattan wrote in a letter to Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson.

“All of us have worked during unprecedented times and we are asking that we can be seen as true partners in our company.”

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