Starbucks Has Fired Several Union Leaders in Memphis

Workers at a Memphis Tennessee Starbucks say the company fired them for publicly speaking in support of a union drive. Retaliating against workers for organizing is illegal — but virtually routine.

In Memphis, Tennessee Starbucks has fired leaders of a union drive. (Stanislav Kogiku / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Starbucks fired several leaders of an organizing drive at a Memphis, Tennessee store, one of more than fifty locations nationwide that are unionizing. Starbucks Workers United says that the company fired seven workers, “virtually the entire union leadership after they spoke to the media.”

A Starbucks spokesman told the New York Times that the workers were fired for violating company safety and security policies, citing a photograph of a journalist inside a store apparently after hours, which the spokesman described as a violation of company policy. But workers allege that the terminations were retaliatory.

“Being fired for ‘policies’ that I have never heard of. Never been talked to about before. Never had a write up about and all of a sudden it’s an offense to get fired over!” said one of the workers who was fired on Tuesday morning. “This is an outrage! They are firing the entire committee!”

The union says it will file an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the terminations. In a statement, the union alleges that “Starbucks is using policies that have never been enforced…to fire workers.” Should the Board find Starbucks’ stated reasons for the firings to be a pretext for retaliation against workers engaged in union activity, it can charge Starbucks with breaking the law. It recently charged the company with precisely such a violation at a Philadelphia store, a ruling Starbucks has appealed.

But while it is illegal under the National Labor Relations Act to fire, threaten, or discipline workers for engaging in protected concerted activity, such employer law-breaking happens all the time. A 2019 study found that employers are charged with violating federal law in 41.5 percent of union drives. Prior research showed that workers are fired in 34 percent of NLRB election campaigns.

The penalties for such violations are laughably miniscule. If a terminated worker’s ULP charge is sustained, the Board can only compel the employer to post signs on the worksite pledging not to violate the law, and demand reinstatement of a worker and compensation for her lost wages. However, those wages are calculated by subtracting any income she made in the interim if she found work elsewhere — which she likely will have, given that she must find a new job if she does not want to starve while awaiting the Board’s ruling. The result is that the employer will owe the worker little, if anything.

For a major corporation like Starbucks, those penalties are nothing compared to the immediately chilling effect of firing union leaders. Such a move can derail organizing, scaring workers away from support of the union. The Board’s slow pace means that even if a worker is reinstated, the damage will have long been done. This is why so many employers, from small businesses such as Coffee Tree Roasters to prestigious institutions like Columbia University, remain quick to threaten workers’ jobs. The long-stalled PRO Act, it should be mentioned, goes some way to rectify this problem by imposing a $50,000 fine on an employer for each labor law violation.

The speed of the Starbucks union drive has raised the stakes for the company, which is employing at least thirty lawyers from union-busting law firm Littler Mendelson to fight the union. Littler’s strategy has been to contest the store-by-store NLRB elections. The lawyers argue that an individual store is not an appropriate bargaining unit and instead, elections should include multiple stores within a region. Inflating the size of a bargaining unit is a familiar move in the employer playbook, with the boss betting on stacking the vote with workers who have not yet joined the union drive. Amazon used this method to great effect during last year’s union drive in Bessemer, adding thousands of workers to the proposed bargaining unit.

There is, of course, no reason an employer should have a say in who is and isn’t in a union, no matter how established the practice is in existing US labor law. This, too, is part of the PRO Act, which would remove employer standing from representation proceedings.

For now, Starbucks workers are fighting the terminations by speaking out about the company’s alleged retaliation. That Starbucks is union-busting at a Memphis location is particularly resonant: these workers launched their campaign on Martin Luther King Jr (MLK) Day, and Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, where he had gone to march with sanitation workers who were on a strike for union recognition. As a GoFundme for the fired Starbucks workers states, “Workers should not be afraid to speak to the media, to organize our stores, or to fight for our right to have a union — the same right Dr. King was killed while fighting for in our city.”

On MLK Day this year, as Memphis Starbucks employees announced their union drive, Starbucks tweeted that the company is “inspired by Dr. MLK Jr.’s legacy.” You can still find an invitation to “volunteer with Starbucks in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day” on the company’s website. “At Starbucks,” the copy reads, “we believe that the positive actions we take together strengthen our communities and make us all better.” Taking action together? Well, now there’s an idea about which their workers in Memphis have a few thoughts.