Starbucks fires workers involved in union push as US movement gains momentum

Coffee chain fires seven workers in Tennessee but denies that the reasoning was tied to union efforts

Starbucks has fired seven workers involved in organising a union in Tennessee, fueling accusations that the coffee giant is retaliating against the growing labor movement it faces nationwide.

The workers – a third of the total workforce at the Memphis location – were fired on Tuesday, including most of the union organising committee.

Starbucks Workers United (SWU), the union helping several stores organize, accused the coffee chain of “union-busting” and selectively enforcing company policies as a “subterfuge” to fire union leaders.

The firings stem from a media event last month when the employees allowed journalists into the cafe after hours as part of the public launch of their efforts to unionize.

A company spokesperson has denied that the layoffs were linked to union efforts or retaliation for staff speaking to the media. Spokesman Reggie Borges told the BBC that the seven workers were fired following an internal investigation which concluded that they knowingly breached company rules that amounted to “safety and security violations”.

The company’s justification has been rebuffed by the fired baristas and the union, who claim the company’s actions are an attempt to slow down momentum, which is gathering pace across the county.

Buffalo, New York recently became home to the first unionised Starbucks-owned stores in the US since the 1980s. Since then, more than 50 locations of the chain have filed to hold votes on unionizing, which would enable workers to negotiate with the company as a group over pay and conditions.

The efforts are part of a labor movement resurgence in the US, with low paid workers across a range of industries interested in setting up unions.

SWU said that it planned to file complaints over the seven firings in Memphis with the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces US labour laws.

On Twitter, SWU wrote: “Starbucks is retaliating against union leaders & supporters in Memphis for policies they’ve never consistently enforced before. This partner was fired after signing a union card in view of the security camera, not for ‘security violations.’”

Starbucks is retaliating against union leaders & supporters in Memphis for policies they've never consistently enforced before. This partner was fired after signing a union card in view of the security camera, not for "security violations."

— SBWorkersUnited (@SBWorkersUnited) February 9, 2022

Starbucks has consistently tried to stop its workers from unionising, which it claims would be bad for workers. The company, which owns 8,000 stores across the US, argues that unions are unnecessary as it already offers benefits above and beyond the industry norms such as health insurance for part-time workers and college tuition reimbursement.

According to the company, its average wage is currently more than $12 an hour, while half of its workforce earn more than $15 an hour – the minimum federal wage proposed by some labor groups and progressive lawmakers. The company previously announced that the average salary will rise to over $16 an hour this summer.

It’s unclear how many workers organized in union efforts have been fired by Starbucks, but last year, the National Labor Relations Board found the coffee chain had retaliated illegally against two baristas involved in labour organising in Philadelphia. The company has appealed the ruling.


Nina Lakhani

The GuardianTramp

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