I Got Fired for Unionizing at Starbucks. And I’d Do It Again.
Emma Chambers tried to unionize her Los Angeles Starbucks store. As a result, she was fired and lost stable housing and health care. But she says that if she knew all that going in, she’d still have stood up for herself, her coworkers, and the working class.
- Interview by
- Will Shattuc
In a matter of months, the number of unionized Starbucks stores in the United States has surged from zero to over 160 — and the number keeps rising. The response from Starbucks has been an intense and illegal campaign of union busting.
Emma Chambers, twenty-two, is from the San Fernando Valley and worked at the I-5 Starbucks in Los Angeles. Emma and her coworkers organized for a union at their store and were fired for doing so. The consequences have deeply impacted her life, and she has filed a complaint against the corporation with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
But despite losing stable housing, losing mental health care, being forced to withdraw from class, and possibly being marked as ineligible for unemployment due to the nature of her firing, Chambers says she would do it all over again. Jacobin’s Will Shattuc spoke with her about her experience taking on the megacorporation.
How did you find yourself working at Starbucks?
Starbucks was actually my first job ever. I ended up picking Starbucks because they offer free college and I was trying to get my degree in counseling. The amount of time I worked there was like two years and two months. I really loved it; I got Partner of the Quarter my first three months there. But I moved, so that’s how I ended up at the I-5 store that I got fired from.
I went from a tiny Burbank café to this top ten in America store. I-5 is a drive-through so it’s really crazy. I didn’t even get proper training and was working nights for the first time. I would literally cry after work every day because it was so difficult.
What were the conditions like that made it so difficult to work there?
The fast pace of the drive-through: the store usually makes $90,000 a week with wages of about $17 an hour. I was getting paid like I was at my old store, but now I’m doing three times the work. I felt exhausted; I could barely do school after work.
We also had a lot of safety issues at that store that were not handled well. I don’t know how to deal with someone overdosing or people verbally abusing us every day. Someone tried to run me over, we’ve had some guy with a gun come through the drive-through. I remember one time there was a guy who came up in a Joker costume and just stared at us with a little jack-in-the-box, just winding it up. I was so scared.
So you’re dealing with all these terrible working conditions. How do you get from there to unionizing?
I heard of all the unionizing because my boyfriend kept telling me, “You should unionize, you should unionize,” and one day, I was like, “Maybe I should.” I started talking to the people that I worked with that night, because I was super close with them, asking them what they would think if we did this. I ended up talking to just about everybody, and if I didn’t talk to them somebody else did. I would describe what a union is and then tell my coworkers the kind of things that we could be benefiting from in a union: it was as big as pay increases to as small as like the music we listened to in the store.
When it got to a majority yes, I messaged Starbucks Workers United on Twitter. I got the union cards, handed them out, and had people sign them in the moment because I know people just take them home and forget. Once the cards went out, it was super fast. We petitioned that next week.
What was management’s reaction to you unionizing?
We had this terrible manager who was part of the reason everyone was into unionizing. Right before we petitioned, she ended up getting sick and we never heard from her again.
We got the assistant manager who hired me at that store. He called me and he’s like, “I’m gonna have a one-on-one with everyone at the store to understand where everyone’s at.” We were like, “Oh, my God, guys, is this union busting? I feel like this is union busting,” and we didn’t know. We like him and we wanted to trust that it wasn’t. But we also wanted to put our guard up. There’s a lot of things that I look back now and am like, That was union busting.
He told us that he wanted to keep a neutral workplace so we agreed, which was my demise.
And then you were fired.
Four of us got fired — me, the two other union leaders, and a pro-union coworker — the week that our union ballots were going out.
The reason they gave for firing me is that they said that I instructed people to steal cups. Not that I stole, but that I instructed people to. But there’s literal footage of them paying for these cups. And they said I took a juice and didn’t mark it out. They asked me to write a statement, and I said there was a miscommunication.
I found that I was getting fired from someone else. I knew the entire day. My district manager had a paper with notice of separation, and included was my statement — but they rewrote it! My manager kept repeating to me, “It’s just a decision you made at a certain point in time.” It was so frustrating to have someone sit there and tell you something that you’re not. We’d been with the company with no previous problems, completely clean records.
I’m losing all my resources. I was getting a raise and moving into a new apartment, and now I’m couch surfing. I got my therapy through Starbucks, so I had to stop seeing my therapist I’d been seeing for two years. I got a W on my transcript because I had to withdraw from a class. The person who fired me was my reference. And because I got fired for technically stealing, I might not get unemployment.
So where is your store at now?
They actually took the petition out. My union rep asked if I thought that people were going to vote yes. And I genuinely didn’t. Having four people fired in a day the week of the vote is enough to scare people. I wish that people still had the opportunity to vote, but also I hated the idea of giving Starbucks that satisfaction.
But you’re not done.
No, no. My lawyer put in a complaint with the NLRB. I still really want to fight for justice, but it’s like their word against mine. I cannot believe that I’m fighting against a corporation’s word.
Why not just walk away?
Being able to be reinstated is enough of a reason to sue, but I also feel backstabbed. It frustrates me that Starbucks is just gonna get away with that. I’ve worked my ass off for them. We were running the store, and to just be tossed aside because I want something a little bit more from them feels like enough for me to fight.
Would you do it again, knowing what you know now?
Even just trying to unionize the store was such an experience in and of itself. Just being part of the larger labor uprising, just being able to fight for the working class in a little way, to be a drop in the water of laborers standing up for themselves against corporations. I would never go back and change that. That is enough of a reason for me to do this again, and again and again.
Don’t be scared out of getting a seat at the table to advocate for things that you need. You’re the person working on the floor, therefore you should have a say in what’s going on on the floor, not these corporate people who have never made a coffee in their life. As long as we’re all inspired and working together, they literally can’t stop us. It’s like six guys and then all of us workers.