Scottsdale, AZ

"There's so many of us": Arizona Starbucks workers speak exclusively with NewsBreak about ongoing labor battle

Jeremy Beren

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April 23: Dalton (center, blue jacket) marching with friend and co-worker Bill Whitmire (right) at a Workers United rally in Seattle.Elliot Stoller/Flickr

By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Scottsdale, Ariz.) — Laila Dalton has a lot on her mind these days.

Let's start with how she feels about Starbucks CEO emeritus Howard Schultz, a multibillionaire and former presidential candidate, who clocked back into work earlier this year as the American coffee chain faces down the most concerted and sustained union organizing effort in its 51-year history.

There is this tweet, sent Sunday night, from a personal account with nearly 15,000 followers:

There is also what Dalton told NewsBreak recently in an exclusive interview — that her fight is really just beginning.

"It's not about winning or losing now," she said. "It's about having a fair election and being able to actually have a voice without being threatened."

Dalton, a former partner at the Starbucks café on Scottsdale Road and Mayo Boulevard, has been a relentless presence within Starbucks' workers' nationwide unionizing push — particularly since her April 4 firing made national headlines.

Though she is confident she will be reinstated, Dalton views her dismissal as a blessing in disguise and feels it has given her life a new purpose.

"There are so many new doors opening (for me), and it has helped me figure out where I want to take my life," Dalton said. "I've always wanted to make a change in the world, I've always wanted to help people. But I didn't know a way to do that.

"Starbucks gave it to me. It's like 'here, you need to help people because we're union-busting.'"

Nineteen-year-old Dalton began working for Starbucks when she was 16. She sought part-time employment as a minor in order to ensure some income and to focus on her education.

After Dalton graduated high school, the company funded her studies at Arizona State University through its College Achievement Plan. She eventually transferred to the Scottsdale and Mayo store once it opened in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Last December, when workers at a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York voted 19-8 in favor of a union. The result has reverberated at cafés around the country, and Starbucks corporate has engaged in a variety of tactics — including captive meetings and retaliatory firings — to halt the organizing momentum.

"Our store never really became divided, thankfully, because that is (Starbucks management's) goal," Dalton said. "I love everyone at my store, and everyone knows at the end of the day that I'm there for them and I appreciate them. If they're not for a union, I understand the reason why they're probably not is because they're scared, and Starbucks is saying things like 'you're not able to get benefits because you're in a union store.' It's been tough with that."

Nevertheless, Starbucks stores around the U.S. continue to file for elections five months after the workers in Buffalo decided upon union representation to begin collective bargaining with the company. More Perfect Union's data shows that as of May 19, workers at 77 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize. Workers United, the SEIU, or the UFCW — the latter, two of North America's largest labor unions — are among the organizations backing Starbucks workers, per information compiled by Union Election Data.

Starbucks corporate's anti-union tactics have been largely ineffective, and the National Labor Relations Board has slapped the company with hundreds of labor violations.

"Worker solidarity has bulldozed over Starbucks, which has a dismal record of 9 wins, 75 losses (in elections)," longtime labor reporter Steven Greenhouse tweeted on Tuesday, after three more stores opted for union representation.

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Elliot Stoller/Flickr

Bill Whitmire, a shift supervisor at the Scottsdale and Mayo store and one of Dalton's closest confidants, was taken aback after Teamsters Local 104 offered to pitch in when his store's union election votes were due to be tallied. Alongside the Seventh Street and Bell Road store, as well as the 107th Avenue and Indian School location, the votes from the workers at Whitmire's store were due to be counted on May 5.

"We all had our vote counts on the same day, so I needed to find a venue for us," Whitmire told NewsBreak in a recent interview. "I thought, 'I'm just going to reach out to the Teamsters,' because they had liked some of our stuff (on social media).

"I reached out to them, and they responded right away. They said 'our house is your house.' It was awesome. They were so nice to us. They brought in lunch for us, we were there all day."

"We don't let our brothers and sisters flail or fail," Teamsters Local 104 political director Dawn Schumann told NewsBreak. "We pick them up, we hold them up, and we walk them through whatever they're going through."

The counts for all three Starbucks stores were conducted between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The Scottsdale and Mayo store did not reach a conclusive outcome that day and are waiting for a new count following a hearing on seven challenged ballots.

"The real people that should be praised and talked about are the workers who were there (at Teamsters Local 104 headquarters) from that store," Schumann said. "They're not going to give up. They're going to keep moving forward. They're still going to do the very best that they can do to make sure that, hopefully, the NLRB will make their decision and they can have a re-vote or a recount."

In the meantime, Whitmire and Dalton have taken to traveling, striking up a camaraderie with Starbucks workers nationwide. A rally in Washington state last month drew hundreds of attendees, giving Whitmire — who, like Dalton, views Twitter as an essential tool in the labor fight toolbox — the chance to connect with Seattle partners and even members of the Memphis 7 in-person.

"It was really great to meet so many different people that are so into this movement, into organizing, who are working so hard like we are," Whitmire said. "We went and visited some stores, which was really cool, and talked to people about the union."

But as the word continues to spread that Starbucks workers want a better wage and expanded protections, Whitmire says that Starbucks management is engineering new ways to try to stem the movement's tide.

"We had a supervisor (in the Seattle area) tell us that he had been told by a higher-up at Starbucks that they were supposed to kick us out if we came in," he said. "We're considered solicitors. We're coming in to educate people about their rights, and we're considered solicitors."

Tactics like these keep Dalton on high alert — especially, as she told NewsBreak, given that her ambition is to see the entire U.S. food service industry unionized. She explained how "essential workers" during the early days of COVID-19 pandemic did not feel so essential, and how it has given them a newfound power to unite irrespective of a worker's place along the political spectrum.

"This is the working class — there is no 'left' or 'right.' This is about anyone who is in the food industry, and anyone who goes through this," Dalton said. "The advantage we have is that there's no divide. The divide is against people like corporate compared to the most essential people who (wield) this power in numbers.

"There's so many of us. If we keep fighting, it's going to get easier and easier."

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Jeremy is a freelance journalist covering health, energy, labor, and local politics. Reach him at jeremy.beren@newsbreak.com.

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