Local organizers say two recent firings at Starbucks shops in Pittsburgh align with a broader retaliatory strategy aimed at thwarting union efforts across the country.
These latest dismissals bring the tally of union firings to at least six in Pittsburgh and 72 nationwide, according to Phil Halin, an organizer with the Pennsylvania Joint Board of Workers United, who says this pattern amounts to a "scorched Earth policy."
“You could put this at any period of organized labor, and this is always the way the bosses work,” he says.
Brett Taborelli and Shea Gannon, two local pro-union shift supervisors who were longtime Starbucks employees before they were recently terminated, say managers at their stores — Penn Center East and Bakery Square, respectively — enforced company rules, or “standards,” differently depending on whether the employee in question was a union supporter.
“If they find out that you are a union sympathizer or a union supporter, it's like any little slip-up, no matter how minor, is suddenly going to be the worst thing that you could have possibly done,” Gannon says. “[T]hey're going to come down at you with everything they can, and they're not doing the same against people that they have confirmed don't support the union.”
In a statement emailed to Pittsburgh City Paper, a Starbucks spokesperson denies allegations of union-busting, writing, "We have fully honored the process laid out by the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board] and encouraged our partners to exercise their right to vote in the election to have their voices heard. Any claims of union busting are categorically false.”
This Monday, Starbucks also accused NLRB members of misconduct and called for a halt to all union elections nationwide.
Taborelli worked at Starbucks for eight years before he says he was fired last month after managers raised vague concerns about his schedule of at least four years. He tells City Paper that, prior to the organizing efforts, he found Starbucks reluctant to discipline employees for misbehavior in the past. In one instance, Taborelli says he fought to get Starbucks to discipline a store manager for calling an employee a “fat c—” but says “they didn’t do anything about it.”
A Starbucks spokesperson denies that any of their stores enforce standards inconsistently or arbitrarily.
As the Starbucks union effort surpasses its 200th store, organizers nationwide allege the company is engaging in a variety of union-busting tactics including holding “captive audience meetings” while workers are on the clock to spread misinformation about unions, threatening to freeze pay during union negotiations, and firing employees, who they call “partners,” who lead union efforts.
It is illegal to fire workers for union activity, and Workers United is currently pursuing reinstatement for many of the fired workers.
Earlier this year, a Starbucks representative told City Paper the company planned to bargain in good faith with unionized stores. Since former CEO Howard Schultz, who has a long history of anti-union activity, has returned to power at Starbucks, union advocates say the company has been on the warpath, targeting stores with suspected or confirmed union activity.
Although local organizers believe the union will win in the end, they say the firings have caused pro-union Starbucks workers to fear for their jobs. In the long-term, however, Halin believes Starbucks is “shooting themselves in the foot” with this strategy.
The firings are “energizing the general population of workers on this campaign,” who are frustrated and angry about how Starbucks is behaving towards them, according to Halin.
“For years, Starbucks tells its employees, ‘We care about you, we want to be a good employer, we care about your needs,’” Halin says, “And then, when workers peacefully come together to declare their needs, the company goes out of its way to squash them.”
Halin says this has “led to people who weren't willing to discuss the unionization before saying, ‘Well, look at how bad faith the company is asking. Clearly, I might need something to protect myself, like a union.’”
In addition to galvanizing remaining partners, organizers are also betting that Starbucks’ firing of vocal union supporters will diminish customer satisfaction, since, Halin says, the best workplace organizers tend to be competent and well-liked employees who understand how the business runs and see ways to make it better. When those people are retaliated against for union activity, Halin says, “the store runs worse without them.”
“What [Starbucks] sells is the experience,” Halin says, “and that experience is almost entirely tied to the workers themselves.”
Indeed, Halin says, the Downtown Market Square store has closed early on three occasions since management fired two pro-union shift leaders last month. Starbucks confirms this, saying the store closed early once because employees were on strike and twice for lack of available staff.
Gannon says that, through her efforts to unionize her store, she has seen workers realizing their power.
“I know that I work for a company that has been making record profits year after year, and I think that they can afford to accommodate us a little bit better,” Gannon says. “I think a lot of people, especially the people in my generation, are sort of wising up to the fact that corporations don't actually have our backs. And that the only way that we are going to be able to get what we deserve from the work we do is by joining together and having that solidarity, and saying ‘Hey, this business doesn't run without us.’”
UPDATE: This story was edited at 11:45 a.m. on Aug. 17 to correct the reason Taborelli says he was fired. CP apologizes for the error.
Pittsburgh Starbucks Workers United. twitter.com/pghsbuxunited
Pittsburgh-area Starbucks union election results
Since December 2021, when a Starbucks location in Buffalo, N.Y. successfully unionized with a Workers United local, almost 350 Starbucks stores nationwide have filed for or held union elections. According to data from unionelections.org, ballots are currently being cast, tallied, and/or verified in almost 100 elections, and 37 stores have voted against unionizing.
Starbucks has just under 17,000 stores in the U.S., more than half of which are operated by the corporation. There are about 40 corporate-owned Starbucks stores in the Pittsburgh area, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
• 4765 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. Filed for election Feb. 11, votes tallied April 13. Out of 22 eligible voters, 20 for and 0 against
• Amos Hall, 4022 Fifth Ave., Oakland. Filed for election March 4, votes tallied May 6. Out of 44 eligible voters, 10 for and 3 against
• 425 Craig St., Oakland. Filed for election March 23, votes tallied June 28. Out of 27 eligible voters, 9 for 8 against
• 7 Market Square, Downtown. Filed for election March 23, votes tallied May 26. Out of 23 eligible voters, 8 for 1 against
• 1400 East Carson St., South Side. Filed for election April 4, votes tallied May 31. Out of 19 eligible voters, 6 for 4 against
• Penn Center East, 3464 William Penn Highway, Wilkins. Filed for election April 14, votes tallied June 16. Out of 36 eligible voters, 15 for 6 against
• 5932 Penn Circle South, East Liberty. Filed for election April 19, tallied June 16. Out of 15 eligible voters, 10 for 0 against
• 7707 McKnight Road, Ross. Filed for election May 31, votes tallied Aug. 3. Out of 42 eligible voters, 16 for 4 against
• Also, a Greensburg store unionized with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local Union No. 30
• 4840 McKnight Road, Ross. Filed for election April 4, votes tallied May 31. Out of 24 eligible voters, 6 for 11 against
Elections still open; results waiting to be finalized
• A likely win at 5310 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. Filed for election May 20, votes tallied July 26. Out of 17 eligible voters, 8 for 6 against
• A likely loss at 4885 McKnight Road, Ross. Filed for election May 20, votes tallied July 26. Out of 18 eligible voters, 4 for 6 against