- Interview by
- Nick French
The historic union drive at Starbucks stores across the country continues — as does Starbucks’s shameless union-busting effort. Workers say the corporation has been firing employees for trying to unionize — something that a National Labor Relations Board complaint alleges is part of a broader pattern.
On July 27, Joselyn Chuquillanqui, a twenty-eight-year-old shift supervisor who had worked for the company for seven years, was fired from her Starbucks job in Great Neck, New York. Chuquillanqui led an organizing drive with Starbucks Workers United at her store earlier this year. Despite gathering wide support for the union among her coworkers, the union narrowly lost its election in April in the face of Starbucks’ alleged anti-union campaign.
Around the time of the election, Chuquillanqui says she was singled out and written up for minor infractions, in a pattern that escalated until her firing last month. Jacobin’s Nick French spoke with Chuquillanqui about her efforts to organize the store, Starbucks’ campaign of union busting and retaliation, and why she intends to keep fighting for the union.
You have worked at Starbucks for a long time. When did you start getting involved with union organizing?
I had heard a couple of things about [the union] in the last couple of years. I think the first time I ever heard about unions was when one of my coworkers a couple years ago said, “Oh, don’t say anything about unions, because if Starbucks hears that, it will immediately fire you.” And I was like, “Oh, okay.” I hadn’t really known what a union was at the time.
But when Buffalo announced a union campaign in August, I started to hear more about it. Customers were bringing in newspaper clippings, and it started becoming this big thing online. I still wasn’t completely sure what it was until December, when Buffalo won its union campaign. Then all of a sudden there was this understanding about what it meant.
I was on break one day, and I was sitting in the back while my manager was having a weekly meeting with her general manager and the other store managers. They had put on a video of Howard Schultz — he had this meeting in Buffalo to bring together baristas and people from corporate and talk about how great Starbucks is . . . until [barista and union organizer] Gianna Reeve, from one of the stores in Buffalo, picked up the fair election principles and demanded that Schultz sign, and Gianna was escorted away.
Earlier tonight, Howard Schultz came to Buffalo days before our union election. Gianna Reeve, a Buffalo barista, wanted to ask why Starbucks hasn’t signed the fair election principles. Schultz fled the room just as she started speaking. pic.twitter.com/9nf3O8zndw
— SBWorkersUnited (@SBWorkersUnited) November 7, 2021
That was a really amazing, powerful moment, for this kid to be standing up to Howard Schultz, this rich and powerful man. And for him having to be escorted away, because Schultz wouldn’t sign a piece of paper when we’re just demanding fair rights and a fair election.
But at that point, I didn’t really know what had happened. And as soon as that scene was over, they cut the video, and I think my district manager said, “Scary, right?”
They started creating this sense of fear among the other managers and started having meetings about how this union thing is getting really out of hand and how it’s terrible. My manager had told me, “Oh, it’s only the Buffalo stores that needed the union, because those stores were just really poorly run.” Our store was okay, though.
But I’d seen them react to Gianna, and I was just like, “So what is the union?”
So I went and started looking at what it meant. I’m talking to someone from Starbucks Workers United; people in my store, we’re talking about it. After a good amount of research and hearing people in my store talk about it, I started saying, “Hey, you guys really want this to happen,” because they thought we would immediately get these benefits [that might be won by the union at other stores] to our store as well. I had to tell them that’s not how it works — we would need to run a union campaign. And so after talking to them, everyone seemed to agree.
This conversation happened sometime in December. I started talking to everyone. And I started gathering how everyone felt about unionizing and started forming an organizing committee, only to find out that one person on my organizing committee had already started looking at the whole list of employees and basically any type of information that we needed. That person was the most resourceful; it was amazing. Then we felt comfortable that we could sign the union cards, and we had 100 percent signatures — everyone in our store signed.
How many people was that?
I think it was fifteen people signing union cards. But then, due to intense union busting at our store after we went public in February, we lost the election five to six.
Can you tell me a little bit about this union busting? What did Starbucks do?
Some people came to our store only to get promoted — like they wanted to make this their career. So management was telling people, “You can’t get promoted if we’re a union store.” Or they would tell other people that if we were to unionize, you couldn’t transfer stores, you couldn’t work at other stores, you can’t pick up shifts at other stores; that every other store in the district would get a raise that wouldn’t apply to us because our wages would be set by the contract, and everyone would get a raise except us. They said we would be gambling our benefits away, like our health care, college, and all these things.
Then they started trying to vilify me, saying we would not be able to talk to our manager when it came to things like getting our schedule changed or approving time off — that they would have to go through me, because I would be the union steward, or they would have to go through a union rep. We would be the people having to approve whatever changes they wanted, and then whatever needs they had — that we wouldn’t be allowed to talk to my manager.
They also said something like, “In Buffalo, the people didn’t just wake up one day and decide to form a union — someone must have been paying them.” And they had implied that I was also getting paid thousands of dollars for the union at our store.
So they said these things, and there were people who were traveling for hours to get to our store to work and just waiting for another store to open up, or they were afraid of losing the stability of the benefits and their income. Management would really just poke at people wherever they felt the most vulnerable and use that as leverage against the union. In the end, it worked.
When was the election? And what has happened since?
Our election was in late April or early May. Since then, my manager has been antagonizing people for being pro-union. A lot of the pro-union people unfortunately ended up having to leave, mainly just due to life happening. So there weren’t a lot of us left.
I think the manager was just trying to antagonize us, the few of us left, to leave the company. She would pick on certain people — especially me. I think she was trying to make more of an example out of me.
Why you in particular?
I think because I had a big role in leading the organizing committee, being one of the leaders for the union in our store. And the other two people in my organizing party ended up having to leave our store. So it felt like it was just me left, even though I know there are other pro-union people at our store.
She wrote me up for four times when I was late, all of those times being five minutes or under. She wrote this as a reason that I should be terminated.
There was also what I call the “key incident.” I open the store every day. On July 5, I went to open the store as I normally do. I didn’t have the key, so I couldn’t go into the store. I called my manager — I had told everyone and had called all the other shift supervisors that had store keys. When I finally got in touch with my manager, she was out of state. She asked another manager who had a spare key to our store to give us the keys. So I had another barista go and pick it up, and we opened the store eventually, and then I gave the key back.
I took a spare key from a place where she kept the keys. It was a place we were allowed to get into — she had told me where it was in the past and that she put spare keys and flashlights there, so we were allowed to grab from this area before. I grabbed the spare key because I had to open the next day also.
A day and a half later, we found [the lost key]. My manager actually ended up finding the key somewhere by her desk. I didn’t know about it until another barista texted me, “She found your key.” And she never said anything. So I texted her and I said, “Hey, I heard you found my key.” And she said, “Oh, I didn’t know your key was still missing” — which I thought was interesting, because I never gave her any indication that I had found my key. I had only told her that I didn’t have it. And it was in the store the entire time, next to her desk.
And she fired me, not because I lost the key, but for not telling her that [I found it]. That’s on the termination paper.
I really have always believed in workers’ rights. When I finally knew what a union was, I was like, “Okay, this is everything I wanted, like completely solidified.” I felt like, “Why have I not learned about this before?”
So when exactly were you fired? And what’s next? Is the union filing a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) complaint?
July 27. And yes, they are. We also already had a complaint for the election, because we feel it was tainted from all the union busting that they had done throughout the campaign. We are going to trial in September, and I think this is something that we’re just going to add to that trial. But we’re definitely filing something with the NLRB, and I think the goal right now is reinstatement. Because this is honestly ridiculous. It is very clearly targeted behavior from my former manager.
What are your plans if you do get reinstated? Are you going to keep trying to unionize?
Definitely. There were so many things that led up to me wanting to unionize. And I think that those problems haven’t been solved. Management will constantly say, “We don’t need a union. Your voices are being heard right now.” That’s completely false.
If I go back, I definitely will keep trying to unionize. And hopefully we will join the rest of the union at Starbucks.
When I see right now that Starbucks is closing certain stores, or that Howard Schultz has made a promise to come to all the stores to personally put away this whole retail union campaign, to union bust personally — they’re so willing to take away everyone’s benefits, their rights, their jobs, their stability, their income — all because they don’t want to give us rights. And they would rather just let us be at-will employees and risk our health and safety. It’s always been profits over people.