Starbucks fires union organiser at centre of government complaint accusing company of retaliation

News comes as CEO Howard Schultz warns against ‘threat of unionisation’

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 05 April 2022 01:46 BST
Related video: Amazon warehouse workers win union election

A Starbucks worker at the centre of a federal government complaint against the company says she has been fired in retaliation for her union organising efforts.

The National Labor Relations Board complaint brought forward by Laila Dalton and another Starbucks worker last month claims that the company violated federal labour law by surveilling and retaliating against union supporters and “interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees” organising a union, according to the board’s regional director in Phoenix, Arizona.

On 4 April, Ms Dalton announced on social media that “they fired me.”

“My heart is broken,” she said.

The store’s union election begins this month.

Ms Dalton began organising following the campaign in Buffalo, New York that successfully elected to form the first-ever union in a corporate-run Starbucks store. The day before Ms Dalton and colleagues planned to announce their store’s campaign, she was brought into a conversation with management, which she recorded.

According to the labour board complaint, Ms Dalton had complained about understaffing, work schedules and supervisors’ treatment of other workers, for which she received a suspension and warning that pointed to absence and other violations that previously had been excused, including unauthorised shifts and medical absences, according to the complaint.

Starbucks management characterised employees’ communications with other employees about understaffing “as inappropriate and negative and citing those communications as a reason for discipline, threatened employees with discipline for engaging in protected concerted activities,” according to the government report, which was released last month.

The labour board said Starbucks disciplined the workers because they “assisted the [union] and engaged in concerted activities, and to discourage employees from engaging in these activities,” despite federal protections for employees to engage in “concerted activity” to address work-related issues.

CEO Howard Schultz, who recently replaced Kevin Johnson after spending 13 years leading the company, told a company town hall on 4 April that “we can’t ignore what is happening in the country as it relates to companies throughout the country being assaulted in many ways by the threat of unionisation.”

Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges confirmed that Ms Dalton was fired, claiming that she was “written up numerous times for behavior that is not reflective of the company’s mission and values,” he told The Independent.

“A partner’s interest in a union does not exempt them from the standards we have always held. We will continue enforcing our policies consistently for all partners,” he said.

He pointed to Ms Dalton’s recordings of conversations with management “without their consent, which is against the law in [Arizona].” Arizona is a so-called “one-way” consent state, meaning an in-person recording between at least two people must have the permission of at least one person, though that person may be the party making the recording.

Ms Dalton captured conversations “at least twice last week” with two managers, he added.

Her recordings and “final written warning … led to her termination,” he told The Independent.

She told More Perfect Union that was “harassed every single day”.

“I know when someone’s going to come harassing me, so I always want to be recording,” she told the outlet.

Starbucks Workers United, which represents organisers, said that the company “will not get away with this blatant retaliation” against Ms Dalton. “They must be held accountable for their unconscionable actions.”

Following the union election in Buffalo, more than 100 corporate-run Starbucks stores have filed for union elections, with victories in a dozen locations, with the latest – and largest store yet – at a flagship roastery in Manhattan. A store in Mesa, Arizona was the first to win a union election outside of New York.

Starbucks has repeatedly denied engaging in union-busting efforts, while workers and union organisers have alleged that the company has staged meetings, sent anti-union messages and relief on interference from management to discourage workers.

The Independent has requested comment from Ms Dalton and union organisers.

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