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Labor Officials Find Starbucks Illegally Fired 7 Union Organizers in Memphis

The “Memphis Seven,” terminated in February, consisted of nearly the entire organizing committee at their store.

A pro-union poster is seen on a lamp pole outside Starbucks' Broadway and Denny location in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood on March 23, 2022.

Labor board prosecutors have determined that Starbucks illegally fired seven union organizers who formerly worked in a unionizing store in Memphis, Tennessee, backing up the union’s claims that the terminations were clearly unlawful.

According to Bloomberg, the labor board is planning to issue a formal charge against the company for firing the workers unless the company offers a settlement. The workers — dubbed the “Memphis Seven” by the union — represented nearly the entire organizing committee at the store. Starbucks terminated them in February, alleging that they had violated a number of company policies, including the dress code and rules against entering the back room while off the clock.

At the time, Starbucks Workers United said that the firings were Starbucks’s “most blatant act of union-busting yet.” The company cited “policies that have never been enforced” to fire the workers, the union said, claiming in a complaint filed after the terminations that the company was illegally retaliating against the workers for organizing.

“I’m hoping Howard Schultz is a smart man and he settles, but from the union-busting tactics that have continued, I don’t think he’s going to,” Nikki Taylor, one of the fired workers, told Bloomberg. “We’re going to win either way.”

It is a violation of federal labor laws for employers to take actions to retaliate against pro-union workers, including termination, surveillance, or other forms of punishment. The consequence for illegally terminating a worker, which is incredibly common in union-busting campaigns, is usually very light — typically, the company simply has to rehire the worker and compensate them for lost pay, which is just the normal cost of operation for the employer.

Even after the labor board finds that an employer illegally retaliated against a worker, such cases can take months or years to litigate. Since fired workers would likely be ineligible to vote in upcoming union elections, firing pro-union workers often proves to be an efficient way for companies to union bust.

The National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo is hoping to speed up the litigation process in order to bring more immediate relief to workers who have been on the receiving end of illegal retaliation, Bloomberg reported.

Meanwhile, the company has been escalating its anti-union campaign, firing numerous workers since the first clean sweep of the Memphis organizers. Over the weekend, the company fired Sharon Gilman, a pro-union worker at a store in Raleigh, North Carolina, and a student at North Carolina State University.

In February, a sink fell on Gilman while she was washing dishes, startling her. The company, which has lied about its reasons for terminating pro-union workers before, claimed that Gilman purposefully broke the sink — but Gilman and the union believe that she was fired for her support of the union.

As Howard Schultz retakes the helm at the company, Starbucks’s union-busting campaign may escalate even further. Schultz has been openly anti-union in recent events, and last week said in a town hall that companies like Starbucks are “being assaulted in many ways by the threat of unionization.”

In a recent Q&A with workers in Long Beach, California, Schultz snapped at a pro-union worker. When union organizer Madison Hall questioned Schultz’s claims that he isn’t anti-union, Schultz said, “If you hate Starbucks so much, why don’t you go somewhere else?”

The union has been incredibly successful so far, despite fierce opposition from the company. On Friday, Starbucks Workers United won union elections at all three stores in Ithaca, New York, making Ithaca the first town in which all Starbucks locations are unionized. Sixteen stores have now successfully unionized, and the union recently hit a milestone of 200 union filings across the country.

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