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Fired after organizing, Starbucks baristas turned down a payout and took their bosses to court

The six-day National Labor Relations Board trial offered rare insight into how companies respond when workers protest and organize.

TJ Bussiere, Echo Nowakowska, and other Starbucks workers and supporters delivered a labor complaint to district manager Brian Dragone in November 2019 at the Starbucks at Broad and Washington. Bussiere and Nowakowska allege that Starbucks illegally disciplined and fired them for their union activity.
TJ Bussiere, Echo Nowakowska, and other Starbucks workers and supporters delivered a labor complaint to district manager Brian Dragone in November 2019 at the Starbucks at Broad and Washington. Bussiere and Nowakowska allege that Starbucks illegally disciplined and fired them for their union activity.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia baristas TJ Bussiere and Echo Nowakowska believe Starbucks illegally fired them for trying to organize a union. And after months of investigation, lawyers for the federal government thought the workers had a case.

Cases such as theirs, which allege an employer has violated a worker’s legal right to organize, are rarely decided in court. Most workers avoid the risk of a long legal battle and settle.

But last summer, when Starbucks offered Bussiere and Nowakowska a settlement, they didn’t think it was fair. The final offer was $50,000 each, the baristas said, more than three times the back pay they were due. It didn’t include reinstatement — the pair wanted to go back to work and keep organizing — and the settlement would have done nothing to raise the standards for other Starbucks baristas.

“That’s not what justice is,” Bussiere, 21, said in September about the payout offer. “Justice is having equitable work conditions, and not having all the money [workers are] making going to someone else, and not being abused and exploited on the job.”

So they refused.

It’s a decision that led to a National Labor Relations Board trial in February that offered rare insight into how companies respond when workers protest and organize. Internal emails and documents show how Starbucks corporate managers monitored the activists from the moment they heard the baristas were interested in a union.

During the six-day trial, between references to managers discussing National Croissant Day and workers getting written up for forgetting to put the sous vide egg bites in the pastry case, witnesses described the corporation as one that prioritizes “customer connection,” even at the expense of its workers (or partners, as the company calls them).

Starbucks denies wrongdoing. While it “respects the free choice of our partners,” spokesperson Jory Mendes said, it believes the company’s “work environment ... makes unions unnecessary at Starbucks.”

At the trial, Nina Markey, a Littler Mendelson lawyer who represented Starbucks, said the company “took even more care when it came to discipline and termination because of [the workers’] very public actions.”

It will likely be months before a judge rules.

“All Philly [district managers] redirected to visit all stores to gauge partner morale and spread enthusiasm.”

District manager Brian Dragone in a memo to regional VP of Operations Camille Hymes after the workers' first protest

It’s common for employers to target union activists and interfere with organizing, as recent efforts at some of the world’s most profitable corporations have shown. A group of Google engineers has alleged they were fired for their activism; an NLRB trial is scheduled for April. Amazon has been accused of employing a slate of union-busting tactics at its warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., including changing the timing of a stop light outside the warehouse to make it harder for organizers to talk to workers.

The decision in the Starbucks case is unlikely to have a lasting impact on the publicly traded Fortune 500 company, which can appeal the judge’s ruling. If the company does lose, the NLRB cannot levy fines or hold executives personally responsible. It can order employers to pay back wages, reinstate workers, and post notices saying that it broke the law — remedies so weak, advocates have said, that they do not stop employers from violating workers’ labor rights.

» READ MORE: These Philly baristas are taking on Starbucks in a fledgling worker movement

But such a trial is an organizing tactic of its own.

Daniel Gross, who took Starbucks to court over similar charges more than a decade ago, said it forces employers to “open up the curtain on their union busting.”

“You see the spying, the disruption, the incredible misdirection that goes into one of these efforts,” said Gross, 41, who won his case at two levels of the NLRB and lost at a court of appeals in 2012.

“That stands in contrast to Starbucks being the ‘third place’ where you can come and everybody knows your name,” he said. “That’s not the reality for these baristas, and specifically baristas of color and gender-nonconforming baristas.”

Baristas taught to ‘make the moment right’

In the summer of 2019, the beginning of a wave of barista activism across the city, Bussiere and Nowakowska started organizing with their coworkers at a new Starbucks at South Broad Street and Washington Avenue. Like many retail and fast-food workers, including those at Starbucks airport locations, they said they were facing such issues as not getting enough hours, unfair treatment of Black, queer, and trans workers, and an expectation to take customer harassment with a smile.

Nowakowska, now 27, took a job at Starbucks because she heard it was a good place for trans people to work. But Nowakowska soon realized that getting harassed by customers was part of the job.

» READ MORE: Philly baristas, too, are sharing their wages in a crowdsourced spreadsheet

At the NRLB trial, managers testified about how Starbucks dealt with conflict between customers and workers.

Starbucks’ policy is “make the moment right,” Philadelphia store manager Leanne Bissell testified. “Say yes when we can.”

Bissell described a situation in which Nowakowska and a customer argued over a Starbucks promotion involving a refillable tumbler — one of the reasons Starbucks gave for firing her.

“Starbucks cares more about making the customer happy than whether or not the tea bags are supposed to go into the tumbler,” Bissell said, explaining why Nowakowska had failed to meet Starbucks’ standards.

Higher-ups got alerted of potential union activity

In July 2019, Bussiere and Nowakowska organized their first protest, where baristas marched into the store at Broad and Washington during business hours. They demanded that their manager resign over “discriminatory practices” against workers of color and LGBTQ workers.

It was one year after Starbucks held a nationwide day of anti-discrimination training for all of its workers — a response to the national uproar caused by a Philadelphia manager calling the police on two Black men sitting in a Rittenhouse Square Starbucks and the subsequent arrest of both men.

Emails presented at trial, though, showed that before the Broad and Washington protest, Starbucks already knew workers were thinking about organizing.

A week before the protest, Bussiere’s manager told her boss, district manager Brian Dragone, that she heard Bussiere and Nowakowska were planning to meet with a labor organization called One PA, according to an email from Dragone to his boss, regional manager Marcus Eckensberger.

That led to a human resources manager going to the store to meet with Bussiere and other workers, HR director Nathalie Cioffi wrote to regional vice president of operations Camille Hymes.

At that meeting, the human resources manager told Bussiere he was just stopping in to different stores and talking to workers about whatever they wanted to talk about, Bussiere said.

Meetings to assess employee loyalty

Days after the first protest, Starbucks was still responding to the situation and keeping corporate managers informed, documents presented in the trial showed.

“All Philly dms [district managers] redirected to visit all stores to gauge partner morale and spread enthusiasm,” read a “Broad & Washington Daily Recap” memo from Dragone emailed to Hymes.

The schedule that day was full, according to the memo: three in-person meetings of “local Philly leadership,” an “update call with Seattle,” the arrival of a Starbucks in-house lawyer. Cioffi, an HR director who came from out of town, and Eckensberger, the regional manager who oversees stores in Philadelphia and Baltimore, also went to Broad and Washington to meet with Bussiere and Nowakowska.

A few months later, after baristas held their second protest and delivered a labor complaint to Dragone at Broad and Washington, Dragone returned to the store to do one-on-one meetings with the workers there.

“Sentiment toward Starbucks and local Leadership is quite positive,” Dragone wrote in an a document titled “Executive Summary-Broad & Washington Philadelphia.”

In his notes about his meetings with workers, he listed their thoughts about Bussiere and Nowakowska (“TJ and Echo complain in her ear on bar,” reads one) and their level of allegiance to the company: One worker, he wrote, was “extremely loyal to Starbucks … and myself.”

No matter the decision, Bussiere and Nowakowska say the organizing will continue. The Starbucks worker movement goes far beyond them.

“We’re just two people,” Nowakowska said. “There’s gonna be a lot more organizing and struggle that’s gonna happen at Starbucks.”