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The Starbucks Unionization Fight Is Getting Messy

6 minute read

Starbucks barista and union organizer Cassie Fleischer says she was recently told by her manager that she “no longer met the needs of the business” and would face termination if she didn’t add more hours to her schedule.

Fleischer believes that the move to try and push her out is tied to her unionizing efforts. She has been with Starbucks for nearly five years and works at the first corporate store to unionize in the country in Buffalo, New York. She is on both the organizing and negotiating committees.

“Essentially, Starbucks is trying to force out union leaders either by termination or resignation by changing its policies without prior bargaining,” says Fleischer. “It is truly disheartening what they’re doing.” Starbucks denied that Fleischer’s situation is related to the union effort, via a representative.

Late last year, Starbucks stores began to unionize, starting with Fleischer’s store and two others in Buffalo (two of the three voted yes to unionization), and calls to unionize swiftly spread across the country. Workers United, the union representing the employees, is currently petitioning to represent workers at roughly 100 stores. Union organizers have accused Starbucks of anti-union rhetoric and activities, including intimidation and retaliatory firings.

Starbucks Workers United does not have a list of demands for the company as a whole. Instead, they have asked Chief Executive Officer Kevin Johnson to sign the fair election principles, according to a Union spokesperson. “It will be up to the bargaining committee at each unionized store to decide what priorities they would like to bargain over specifically,” she says. “More broadly, we are fighting for a seat at the table and a democratic workplace.”

Read More: How Gen Z Baristas Are Spreading the Starbucks Unionization Effort

At the store where Fleischer has been working, economic proposals have included a minimum tip guarantee of $5.50 per hour and having the company pay the full cost of health insurance premiums. In January, workers at the store held a walkout to protest “unsafe working conditions” related to COVID-19.

Starting around Christmas, Fleischer, 25, noticed that her hours had been cut from around 37 per week to 30. The change meant that money was tight for her, so she looked for a second job that could guarantee her 40 hours a week. She found one as an administrative assistant and started there this month. She kept her job at Starbucks, but changed her availability to reflect her new schedule and didn’t think much of it. Then her manager asked to meet with her and gave her what felt like an ultimatum: essentially add more hours or leave.

Fleischer offered to work a few more hours a week for a total of 15 but was told it still wasn’t enough, she says. That didn’t make sense to her as “Starbucks has always been a job that you can work part time.” Twelve hours had always been the minimum number of hours per week, but her manager now told her it was 20, she says. According to a Starbucks spokesperson, there is no standard policy on minimum hours. “Each store has unique needs required to support the business,” according to the spokesperson.

When Fleischer wrote about her situation on Facebook this month, the post went viral. Starbucks sees the attention being paid to Fleischer’s situation as “just confusion or misinformation,” according to a second company spokesperson. “Cassie Fleischer has not been fired. She’s just a retail partner working with her manager to work fewer hours, and they are trying to find a way that that would work for the store.”

Fleischer says that while she has not been officially terminated, she is not on the schedule for the next two weeks, which means she won’t be getting paid. She will not be able to increase her hours any more than she already has, so there really is no other option than termination, she says.

Last week, the Union filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the company over its apparent implementation of this new rule about availability at Buffalo stores, according to Ian Hayes, an attorney working for the union. “We are including an allegation about Cassie’s termination in that case. More broadly, the charge alleges that the company is implementing this rule in order to dissuade other Starbucks workers from organizing, in violation of workers’ most basic rights under federal labor law.” And, on Tuesday, Fleischer had a call with the National Labor Relations Board to discuss her situation.

The company is putting rules in place that are attempting to discourage employees from organizing, according to a spokesperson for Starbucks Workers United. “Their union busting tactics will not work,” she says. “This shows why we need a union now more than ever. We will win Cassie’s job back through the court of public opinion or through the court of law.” The spokesperson also says that the Elmwood store where Fleischer works has been “inundated” with customers demanding that she be reinstated. “Starbucks partners across the country are standing strong with her.”

For Kylah Clay, a barista and organizer in Boston, Mass., Fleischer’s experience shows just how important unions are. “Starbucks prides itself on respecting and supporting its partners,” says Clay, 24. “But I think the recent firings in Memphis and Buffalo shows the company’s true colors and highlights precisely why workers are fighting to unionize: to prevent unjust terminations and secure greater workplace protections.”

Fleischer already misses her job. “I love this job. It’s the first job that I’ve ever had that I didn’t hate,” she says. “The people that I work with are like minded. We get along. We function like a family. It hurts to think that this is how it might end.”

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