Scottsdale, AZ

"I never knew what they were going to do": Intimidation, retaliation rife as Scottsdale Starbucks continues union push

Jeremy Beren

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CEO Howard Schultz, seen speaking at an event on ASU's campus, is the public face of Starbucks's vicious anti-labor campaign.Gage Skidmore/Flickr

By Jeremy Beren / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

(Scottsdale, Ariz.) — Starbucks partners continue making history during their unprecedented push to unionize stores around the United States.

On May 27, workers at two more stores in Seattle — coincidentally, the coffee chain's birthplace — voted for union representation. This takes the nationwide total to 100 unionized Starbucks locations.

Ordinarily, the next step for the partners at these stores would be to "collectively bargain" with Starbucks. The collective bargaining process involves trade union representatives — Workers United, in most of these cases — sitting down and negotiating their members' terms with corporate representation in order to strike a deal.

But Starbucks is completely disinterested in collectively bargaining with any of the 100-plus stores that have voted to unionize so far, or in seriously evaluating the concerns of workers who are tired of feeling exploited for their labor.

Instead of coming peacefully to the table, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and other executives remain hard at work trying to crush the union elections that keep taking place at stores around the nation. The company has hired Littler Mendelson — one of the most notorious anti-union law firms in the country — to break up these organizing efforts.

NewsBreak has learned that Starbucks is specifically targeting stores with close votes and, in coordination with Littler, is closely monitoring baristas' social media posts for any sign of union support or organizing activity.

Apple Inc. also hired Littler as talk ramped up of a union vote at a store in Atlanta. Workers there have reportedly withdrawn this request, claiming Apple embarked on an intimidation campaign in response.

"Workers have a guaranteed legal right to unionize and bargain for improvements in their working conditions. They are fighting for better wages, benefits, schedules and a safer work environment," Arizona State Senate candidate Junelle Cavero told NewsBreak via text. "Customers are supporting those efforts and it's time that Starbucks treats their employees with the respect they deserve."

The Huffington Post, citing National Labor Relations Board filings, reported in February that at least 30 Littler lawyers are on the Starbucks case — likely costing the coffee giant millions of dollars in fees. And according to store #62567 shift supervisor Bill Whitmire, it is the latest example of how far the company has drifted from its mission statement and values, which espouse "a culture of warmth and belonging" and encourage employees to act courageously while "challenging the status quo and finding new ways to grow our company and each other."

"I went to work for Starbucks because they said they're a progressive company. All their literature says they're progressive. That's their mission," Whitmire told NewsBreak. "I bought into the mission, and I still buy into the mission. None of us want to change the company mission. We're asking that the company get in alignment with the mission."

The partners in Whitmire's store at Scottsdale Road and Mayo Boulevard are still hoping to join up with the scores of other Starbucks workers who have voted to unionize in recent months. The outcome of the election at store #62567 remains unclear as of May 31, as Starbucks is challenging seven ballots that were cast during the May 5 vote.

"People are asking me about (the election outcome) because of what management has put up on the (employee) bulletin board," Whitmire said. "On face value, what they're saying is true. They say that the majority of partners, or the votes that were counted, did not vote for the union.

"But they're not telling the whole story. They're leaving a lot out. I've had to educate our people on what's going on, that there's a process unfolding."

Without a ratified union contract, Whitmire explained that Starbucks store managers around the U.S. can continue to make promises to workers that do not necessarily have to be kept.

Around the time of the decisive all-staff meeting in which the workers at store #62567 decided to organize, Whitmire said Starbucks management promised his store a mobile point order system — a portable tablet that baristas use to input a customer order received through their headsets wherever they are in the store.

Whitmire said these tablets are a “huge advantage” to workers. He used one such device at another store while training as a supervisor. A mobile point order system reduces bottlenecks and allows baristas to multitask — a quality that modern food service worker management craves.

“You can be putting food in or warming up food while taking someone’s order,” Whitmire said. “You don’t have to leave your warming station.”

But according to Whitmire, even as management continues to promise that the devices will be implemented at Scottsdale and Mayo, there remains no sight of them in the store four months later.

"Without a contract, they can make all the promises they want, but we don't get anything," he said.

Additionally, if a union contract had been in force, management at Scottsdale and Mayo would not have been able to fire supervisor Laila Dalton after an active NLRB complaint had been lodged against the company for how it was treating her. But on April 4, they did it anyway.

Dalton told NewsBreak that store and district management "interrogated and harassed" her for months in an effort to pressure her to quit. She worked out a system with her baristas, who would tip her off to the district manager's arrival and cover for her while she ran into a restroom, waiting for her panic to subside.

"I started taking anxiety medication every day before going into work," Dalton said. "Sometimes I would drive up to work, I was about to go in, and my district manager's car would pull up. And I would call (Bill). 'Why? Why me, again? Why does this keep happening?'

"I never knew what they were going to do. I already have anxiety and depression as it is ... (I was) scared to walk into work every single day, not knowing if I was going to be interrogated and given a write-up for stuff that other people have done but never faced any consequences (for doing)."

"The Starbucks Partner Guide is so broad that a manager can interpret it any way they want to and play favorites. Some people get written up, some people don't," Whitmire said. "One of our baristas was written up for texting, and I know why they did. (This barista) got caught texting us during one of our rallies, and they were texting us about very high-level management in the store.

"I've been working with that partner almost a year now. I've actually never seen him on his phone texting. He doesn't do it that often, even if he does it," Whitmire continued. "This is what we deal with, without (a union contract) set in stone. Anybody can lose their job at any time."

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Starbucks partners demonstrating at a Workers United Rally in Seattle on April 23.Elliot Stoller/Flickr

Whitmire insists that if former Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson had come to Phoenix and admitted wrongdoing prior to his March 16 retirement, the conflict between Dalton and Starbucks corporate would have ended without further fuss.

"Laila was only asking for one thing. It never had to come to a complaint," Whitmire said. "Laila just wanted an apology, for us and for the Memphis 7. It could have all stopped right then."

But Starbucks and Littler have pressed ahead with a more-destructive strategy, and the NLRB — the nation's top labor law enforcement agency — is maintaining that Starbucks is violating workers' rights and breaking the law.

On June 8, Dalton, along with two other partners from her store, will take part in an injunctive relief hearing in federal court. An injunction is an extra-ordinary legal proceeding, and typically an intervention from the court is granted only if the specter of immediate and irreparable harm will cause a plaintiff to lose something important. This can be intangible (like unwritten or incorporeal rights) or tangible (like reinstatement or back pay, which Dalton will be trying to receive).

A more-general hearing to address the large number of NLRB complaints is slated for the following week, on June 14.

Meanwhile, Whitmire has expressed optimism regarding a new assistant manager appointment inside the Scottsdale and Mayo store.

The new ASM has kept an open line of communication with Whitmire and included him in key day-to-day decisions. Whitmire also believes there is some willingness on the ASM's part to address the concerns he retains about scheduling, career advancement, and diversity at the store.

But Whitmire says "actions speak louder than words." He is unsure how expansive or wide-ranging any potential changes will be, especially as the company continues punishing the progressive thinking of its unionizing workers.

"It seems like things are going to go one way, and then Starbucks does something else the next day," he said.

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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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