On Monday, seven Starbucks workers in Memphis, Tennessee, were fired from their jobs as baristas. According to the company, these firings were a response to multiple violations of company “safety and security” policies, but for Kylie Throckmorton, a barista who was fired by Starbucks, it wasn’t a coincidence that all seven of the fired baristas were also involved in organizing a union at their store.
The Memphis location is one of 60 Starbucks locations across the country that are currently mounting organizing campaigns as Starbucks Workers United. The effort started in Buffalo, New York, and has expanded to more than 19 states, including Illinois, Arizona, Massachusetts, and California. As they pursue collective bargaining with Starbucks, the workers are advocating for higher wages, better benefits, and a safer workplace. The company has responded to these campaigns with what the union describes as intimidation, ranging from bringing in corporate staff to surveil stores to the firings of union organizers in Memphis.
As she stood on the picket line outside of her Starbucks location on Wednesday, Throckmorton spoke with Eater about her experience with the union campaign, what led up to her firing, and what she hopes to see in the coming months as the Starbucks union momentum continues to grow.
Eater: How did you get involved with the union effort?
Kylie Throckmorton: We saw what happened in Buffalo, we saw what happened in Elmwood in Chicago, and we decided we need to push for change. We work for one of the stores in our district that we feel gets mistreated the most, so we gathered a group of baristas and started pushing for the union. And now here we are.
Did Starbucks corporate or your store managers start to behave differently after the union campaign went public?
We started seeing a lot more corporate presence. Before, I’d only ever seen our district manager maybe once or twice, and ever since we went public she’s been in at least once a week. We’ve had managers coming in from different stores every single day. They can’t really talk about unionization or anything, but they’ve all been dancing around it. Some will try to act like your best friend all of the sudden, and some are trying to scare people into quitting so that they can’t vote in the election.
How did you find out that you were losing your job?
About a month ago, [management] started an investigation of people on our union committee and a few other baristas. On Monday, my proxy manager gave me a call and told me to come in for a one-on-one meeting. The store had been closed for a week due to the bad winter storm, and she said she wanted to do a check-in with the power and everything. When I got there, two people were there that I wasn’t expecting, and they told me I’d been terminated.
What were the company’s stated reasons for firing you?
They listed some very minor reasons, and this was my first offense. I hadn’t had any other type of discipline. The first reason was that I wasn’t wearing a mask when I was off the clock, but our policy says that we don’t have to wear a mask if we’re off the clock. I was also told that I was in the back of the house, which is where our schedules are [and] where we can check our inventory, off the clock. That policy had never been enforced before, so they were just very much trying to nitpick and find anything they could to get rid of us. I was also told that I was in the store after-hours, but I was working in the store before after-hours began, so I thought I was still okay to stay in the store.
Why did getting fired feel so retaliatory?
I know that I was retaliated against because these policies had always been selectively enforced. A lot of us got fired over things they never chose to enforce before, or things that our store managers were also doing without getting in trouble. On top of that, we were one of the loudest union voices here in the Mid-South region. We were being a little too loud for them, so it seems like they just needed to grasp at any straw they could.
Is the union planning to file an unfair labor practices charge, which would allege that these firings are a violation of federal labor law, with the National Labor Relations Board?
Yes and no. We have definitely filed unjust firing complaints regarding this situation, but we believe that they’ve been using unjust labor practices before it even got to this.
If these workers hadn’t been fired, do you think the union would have won at your Starbucks?
I 100 percent believe that we would. We have full support from our community. We’re still fully supporting [the baristas still working], and they feel that support. I know multiple baristas at that store who are planning to vote yes. But the company has brought in new workers — seven of us were fired, and we were just told today that there’s seven new people on the schedule. So it’s pretty clear that was in the works for a while.
If the NLRB does find that your firing was unjust, do you want your job back at Starbucks?
I’m honestly still trying to decide that for myself right now. I do want my job back because I care very much about my coworkers, and I don’t want to have gone through all of this without seeing the results of all that hard work and effort. But at the same time, I also don’t want to continue supporting a huge corporation that doesn’t care about me. I’m already looking into work at local coffee shops. I’d rather support those businesses. I want everyone to know, though, that what corporate is saying about us is not true. I want people to understand and educate themselves on what’s happening right now, because it’s very serious. This is more than just a Starbucks issue.