More workers say Starbucks retaliated for union efforts: ‘I lost everything when they fired me’

US employee rights agency issues growing number of complaints against coffee chain as hundreds of stores try to form unions

In April 2022, Hannah Whitbeck, a barista at a Starbucks store in Ann Arbor, Michigan was fired just weeks after she helped file for a union election at her store, which many employees voted in favor of shortly after her termination.

Whitbeck filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging her termination was in retaliation for union organising. On 7 October, a judge with the NLRB ruled she was illegally fired, ordering her reinstatement with back pay and the arrangement of a meeting to clarify workers’ rights and how Starbucks broke the law.

“I think it’s abhorrent what Starbucks is doing because ultimately, we are all people, and I know most of us, myself included, relied very heavily on this job. This was my income, and then I was getting schooling, which I lost. I had healthcare, lost that, I had mental health services, I lost that. I lost everything when they fired me,” said Whitbeck.

Dozens of workers have now filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB alleging they’ve experienced retaliation for union organising, including terminations. On 12 October, a NLRB judge ruled in favor of four other fired Starbucks workers in Kansas and Missouri, ordering their reinstatement as well.

The board has issued 35 complaints against Starbucks, encompassing more than 800 allegations of federal labor law violations as about 250 Starbucks stores have voted to form unions over the past year.

Whitbeck said she anticipates Starbucks will try to appeal against the ruling, but given the ruling and facts of the case, doesn’t expect to see a change. She views her firing and the terminations of more than 125 Starbucks workers heavily involved in union organising this year as part of union avoidance efforts by the company. But she also sees it as a tactic that is backfiring, since it’s emboldening workers to fight back and drawing a lot of attention to the campaign.

“Just because there are risks with unionizing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. I think especially with Starbucks, all Starbucks stores should be unionized,” added Whitbeck.

Management clearly does not agree. Testimony for a former Starbucks manager in Buffalo, New York was recently reported on by Bloomberg, with the manager alleging they were directed to target workers supporting unions.

People gather outside a Starbucks store while singer Billy Bragg performs for striking Starbucks Workers United Union members in Buffalo, New York, on October 12.
People gather outside a Starbucks store while singer Billy Bragg performs for striking Starbucks Workers United Union members in Buffalo, New York, on October 12. Photograph: Lindsay Dedario/Reuters

“It proves what we suspected was happening,” said Michael Sanabria, a Starbucks barista in Buffalo, New York for five years, who previously worked under the manager. He said the manager who replaced him terminated Sanabria earlier this month, after he had missed a shift that he had told his manager about so he could attend his grandmother’s funeral. He has also filed a charge over his firing with the NLRB.

In Memphis, Tennessee, seven workers were fired in January 2022 during their union organising campaign. In September 2022, Starbucks lost its appeal against a federal judge’s decision ordering the reinstatement of those workers.

Nabretta Hardin, one of the fired workers who won reinstatement through the ruling, said some workers have returned to work so far, but others are still waiting on scheduling with Starbucks.

“We now have to fix our availability with being in school again, some of us are parents, some have other duties, so we have to juggle that now with working back at Starbucks, so that’s been challenging. They haven’t been very accepting of those changes. It’s been difficult to get back on the schedule,” said Hardin.

Alydia Claypool, a Starbucks shift supervisor in Overland Park, Kansas, was fired in April 2022 while organising a union at her store. She was the first worker to win reinstatement but did so through a complaint filed with Starbucks Human Resources, and is still waiting for the NLRB to rule on the complaint she filed with the board.

“Managers are being told to target specifically the people that are well respected and looked up to at stores in an attempt at trying to demoralize partners,” said Claypool. “They’re picking on these people that are clearly liked, well loved and respected in stores. Really all they’re doing is radicalizing the partners that remain in the store.”

Claypool explained she was fired after informing a manager that her temperature was too high during a Covid-19 check-in she was required to complete, and was told she needed to go home. Initially, Starbucks claimed she violated company policy in doing so.

She was reinstated with back pay a few weeks after her firing but has never received a formal explanation, and has not been able to obtain her company file to view what happened or why she was reinstated while other workers had not been.

Starbucks did not provide an explanation in a request for comment.

“The claiming of being a progressive company that genuinely cares about as partners and then firing over 100 pro-union partners, their actions are speaking a lot louder than their words ever have and I think it’s something that eventually they’ll end up being really ashamed that they took part in,” Claypool said.

Starbucks denied all allegations of retaliation and that they plan to appeal recent rulings. A spokesperson said in an email, “no Starbucks partner has been or will be disciplined or separated for supporting or engaging in lawful union activity. A partner’s interest in a union does not exempt them from the standards we have always held. Allegations of discrimination and retaliation are false.”


Michael Sainato

The GuardianTramp

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