The Controversial Reason 2 Buffalo, NY Starbucks Baristas Were Fired

There has been yet another development in the Starbucks unionization conflict. This year has seen hundreds of Starbucks locations file to unionize, reflecting a broader trend of the times: The Guardian reports that public support for labor unions is higher than it's been in almost six decades, with a Gallup poll indicating 71% of Americans approve of unions. Submissions of union petitions are up 58% since 2021, and we're only through the first three quarters of the year. Clearly sensing the changing tide after facing the longest strike in its history, Starbucks has fired back at the labor movement to a potentially illegal degree.

The epicenter of this labor movement was Buffalo, New York, beginning in December 2021, when the staff of a local store voted to form the first Starbucks union in the U.S. (via NPR). Dubbed Starbucks Workers United, the union has seen growth across the country, but especially in the Buffalo area. Starbucks has shown its opposition to this movement in several ways. Buffalo NPR affiliate WBFO interviewed an employee who revealed that, before he poured a single drink, he went through two months of training focused on why unions are unnecessary. Starbucks has also been accused of taking punitive steps that violate the law, the latest of which comes from a store in, once again, Buffalo.

What happened in Buffalo?

Will Westlake, a former Starbucks barista, has accused the company of firing him over his role in the labor movement. According to Bloomberg, Starbucks management told Westlake they were firing him for repeatedly violating their dress code by wearing a pin from the American Society for Suicide Prevention, depicting a pair of clasped hands and the words, "You are not alone." Westlake and his fellow employees adopted the pins following a co-worker's death by suicide, and while other workers complied with management's request to remove them, Westlake did not. He claims the dress code was just an excuse, and he was really fired for his prominent role in organizing one of the first three Starbucks unions.

A second Starbucks employee in the Buffalo area, Angel Krempa, had a nearly identical experience as Westlake after helping to organize a union at her store. According to NPR, Starbucks claims she was fired for wearing a suicide prevention pin and nose piercings that violated their dress code. Krempa was also heavily involved in the labor movement, speaking to WBFO about the issue in March 2022. On May 23, her store voted to unionize, and on June 1, she was fired. Like Westlake, she thinks the timing is no coincidence.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Will Starbucks face consequences?

Starbucks Workers United has accused the company of firing more than 80 employees for their roles in the labor movement. If this is true, Starbucks would be in violation of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects people's right to unionize. As noted by Bloomberg, the responsibility of enforcing federal labor law belongs to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), but the organization has limited power. They can order companies to reinstate unlawfully-fired workers and provide them with backpay, but it cannot force Starbucks to pay any punitive damages, even if its actions are proven illegal.

According to NPR, the Starbucks union has brought over 325 unfair labor practice charges against the company, all of which the NLRB is tasked with investigating. At the time of this writing, the organization has issued 35 formal complaints against Starbucks for, among other things, illegally coercing, threatening, and firing employees, as well as withholding wages. Meanwhile, Starbucks has announced new raises benefits for its employees, for which only non-unionized stores are eligible. In addition, Starbucks recently agreed to enter contract negotiations with unions at 234 of their locations, which could last through October.