Starbucks workers across Seattle went on strike last weekend to protest the company’s decision to create a “heritage district” at three downtown locations. The workers said the decision amounted to “union-busting” and “constructive dismissal,” a legal term that describes an employer creating a hostile environment that makes workers quit in response.
Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said that “claims of [creating a heritage district] being tied to unions is categorically false.”
As unionization efforts continue at Starbucks shops across the country, in the last week of May workers at locations on 1st and Pike, 1st and University, and Pike Place Market received notice that they would have to reapply and re-interview to keep their jobs as the company redistricted the three stores.
According to one employee at one of those stores, the company gave workers very little information about what a “heritage district” meant or how it would change their responsibilities. However, Borges said that the redistricting “has actually been an ongoing conversation that included partner input from those stores, who shared that the expectations/experience at these stores are different.” Starbucks did not give workers a written explanation of the new district, so it is unclear to what extent the company included partners.
Last week, Starbucks explained the new “heritage district” idea in a post on its website. The “iconic” stores will offer an “elevated” experience with “cultural immersions and educational opportunities.” Starbucks said that workers at the heritage stores will be “uniquely trained” in fun facts about Starbucks and will “serve as ambassadors for the Mission and Values that are the foundation of Starbucks.”
The workers had two weeks to reapply or else face relocation before the company held interviews the week of June 15 during working hours, in-person in SODO.
A barista who worked at the 1st & Pike location at the time said they worked all three of the interview days, so they did not get the chance to re-interview for their job. The barista could not have planned to make the interview even if they wanted to – Starbucks announced the interview dates two weeks ahead of interviews, and that week's work schedule had come out a week before the announcement, they said. According to a June 3 email, a Starbucks recruiter told workers “scheduling [for the interviews] will be first come first serve and interviews will only be available during the three day window.” The email did not include instructions for employees who could not attend, but rather instructed them to let the interviewers know they would be “unable to participate.”
Borges denied claims that Starbucks did not provide flexible interview times.
Workers from the 1st and Pike location said the timing of the decision was too damning to ignore. Making a bunch of major staffing changes during the busy tourist season seemed strange to one barista, who said their store was so busy that partners couldn’t take a moment to update a sandwich board that was two-years out of date. Plus, their store filed to organize on June 6. All of that made the barista feel as if the company really just wanted to handpick who kept their job in the new “heritage district.”
“We have one of the strongest communities I've ever worked at, but Starbucks is so adamant on breaking us up and spreading us out so that we can't continue to work together, continue to work on unionizing,” said the barista.
On Tuesday, June 21, workers closed up the three stores as they normally would have, not knowing that many of them would not be welcome back. That night, almost all employees received notice that they would be relocated, workers said. Two baristas from 1st & Pike said the company only rehired three of about 30 workers at the store. One of those workers was a recently hired manager who was known to strictly enforce store rules and hush talk of unionization, according to those baristas.
Borges said that all partners who either did not want to apply for a role at the heritage stores or were not rehired got their choice of core stores they wanted to move to. One barista who spoke to The Stranger confirmed they got assigned to one of the stores they asked for.
Workers argued that the company’s decision to transfer them to new locations will effectively force some to quit due to impossible commutes or a lack of hours to accommodate their schedule. Furthermore, Starbucks Workers United called the move a “shameless attempt to union-bust.