Starbucks workers in Phoenix speak out after company fires union organizers

Phoenix, Arizona – "Kind of expected but also sudden" is the way union organizer Alyssa Sanchez described getting fired from Starbucks. "It was one of those situations where you hope for the best but expect the worst," she told TAG24.

Laila Dalton (l.) and Alyssa Sanchez (r.) were both fired from Starbucks after starting efforts to unionize their Phoenix store.
Laila Dalton (l.) and Alyssa Sanchez (r.) were both fired from Starbucks after starting efforts to unionize their Phoenix store.  © Collage: Screenshot/Twitter/lailaddaltonn & Alyssa Sanchez

Even after being fired by the company, Sanchez still brims with passion for the Starbucks community.

"I love Starbucks. It was my first actual job," she said with a smile.

She previously worked at a location in Rochester, New York, before transferring to Phoenix, Arizona, last October.

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As a full-time college student and flight school attendee with regular medical appointments, Sanchez said the scheduling flexibility was a huge part of why she initially chose the job.

But it was exactly that flexibility that was stripped away as soon as she and her colleagues decided to try to unionize the Scottsdale and Mayo store.

Sanchez said the store manager started delaying approval on her scheduling requests and slating her to work on days when she had already registered her unavailability.

"She said if I failed to show up for those shifts, she'd give me write-ups. You know, if you get three of those, you're fired," Sanchez recalled. She was also told that co-workers were not allowed to cover for her.

Sanchez's manager eventually told her that her hours of availability didn't "meet the needs of the store." When Sanchez asked if they could work together to find a solution, her manager responded, "I don't know, I guess it's just not going to work out."

"It was only after we started developing the union and came out with it that she had a problem with my scheduling," she noted.

Origins of the union campaign

Union election ballots have already been mailed to Starbucks workers at the Scottsdale and Mayo store.
Union election ballots have already been mailed to Starbucks workers at the Scottsdale and Mayo store.  © Alyssa Sanchez

The seeds of the Scottsdale and Mayo union campaign were planted back in December.

Another local organizing committee member, Bill Whitmire, was the first to broach the idea.

Whitmire joined the company during the Covid-19 pandemic as a barista before becoming a shift supervisor. He was initially attracted to the scheduling flexibility and benefits as well as the company's stated values of inclusivity.

But when it came to putting those values into action, Starbucks left a lot to be desired.

In addition to issues around training and staffing, Whitmire said the company did not accommodate his hearing impairment, regularly putting him and other workers with similar conditions in difficult situations without fully functional equipment or easy procedures to access assistance. "It was very hard for me to be successful," he lamented.

A community organizer at heart, Whitmire was inspired by the unionization efforts fellow Starbucks workers launched in Buffalo, New York. He connected with organizers in Buffalo before speaking with his colleague Laila Dalton, who was frustrated by the staffing issues at the store.

"Finally one night, I just said, 'Well, there's a solution, but it's going to take a lot of hard work and Starbucks is going to come after us. Are you ready?' She said, 'I'm ready. Tell me what it is,'" Whitmire remembered.

After agreeing to pursue unionization, they reached out to other colleagues they thought would be receptive, including Sanchez, and their organizing committee was born.

They went public with their intent to unionize in late January. Soon afterward, the retaliation began.

Targeting union organizers

Laila Dalton (r.) was fired the same day that union ballots were sent out for her store.
Laila Dalton (r.) was fired the same day that union ballots were sent out for her store.  © Collage: Screenshots/Twitter/whitphoenix

Organizing committee members are convinced it was no coincidence that they were selected for termination.

Sanchez believes she was singled out because of her "strong connections" to fellow baristas in the store.

She said she and Dalton were "very active" in reaching out to colleagues to discuss working conditions and the possibility of unionizing.

Whitmire agreed, describing Sanchez and Dalton as "powerful women who will stand up for themselves" and are "very well-liked" in the store.

After Starbucks fired Sanchez, they proceeded to harass and intimidate Dalton, eventually firing her earlier this week.

The National Labor Relations Board has already issued a formal complaint over the company's treatment of the two women.

Fighting for reinstatement

Community members rally in support of Starbucks baristas in Phoenix in March.
Community members rally in support of Starbucks baristas in Phoenix in March.  © Screenshot/Twitter/whitphoenix

Sanchez and Dalton are now fighting for reinstatement at Starbucks. In losing their jobs, both also lost benefits that allowed them to pursue their studies at Arizona State University.

Because she lost those benefits, Sanchez has had to stop attending university courses for the time being. She has also had to continue paying off her student loans for flight school, which costs around $100,000 in total.

"To not have an income coming in to pay that off every month is very stressful," she explained.

Seeing the two women lose their jobs hasn't been easy for co-workers either. "It's been really hurtful when you watch your friend get hurt like that. When it happens in the moment, it's this powerless feeling, like there's nothing you can do to help them as they're getting abused and harassed," Whitmire described.

He said he is trying to channel his pain and anger into ways he can support his colleagues, including starting a GoFundMe page so Dalton may continue her education.

"Even though she might have felt alone, I wanted to let her know that there's a lot of people behind her," he said. In addition to her "family" of supportive colleagues, the Service Employees International Union has hundreds of thousands of members who have her back, he reminded her on particularly tough days.

That same sense of community is why Sanchez wants to return to her job at the store: "I had never seen such a great group of workers in my life as I did when I worked my Starbucks job. Even all the customers are great. I got that excitement to go to work, which not a lot of people can do."

Union-busting is a losing game

Starbucks organizers and allies protest at the Scottsdale and Mayo store, demanding that Sanchez and Dalton be reinstated.
Starbucks organizers and allies protest at the Scottsdale and Mayo store, demanding that Sanchez and Dalton be reinstated.  © Alyssa Sanchez

Organizing committee members are convinced that firing Sanchez and Dalton won't stop their union campaign.

In fact, Sanchez said the terminations have only made the case for unionization clearer: "When I got fired, a lot of people were raising questions because that was something that was kept very quiet. Now that Laila is fired, everyone is going full steam ahead, saying, 'This isn't right. We've got to make a change.'"

"It's not scaring people. Our partners are too smart for that," Whitmire agreed.

Workers and community members gathered outside the store on Wednesday to demand Sanchez and Dalton's reinstatement. During the rally, managers inside the store called 911, and seven squad cars arrived at the scene. Whitmire explained that protesters didn't do any harm to the store, as managers reportedly claimed.

Organizers remain undeterred in their fight for justice. Dalton even hinted on Twitter that another rally is planned for next week. In the meantime, organizers are asking the community to continue demonstrating support by showing up in person or amplifying their message on social media.

Despite all the hardship caused by Starbucks' union-busting tactics, Sanchez has described the experience of joining the movement as "very rewarding." Not only do she and fellow organizers try to help colleagues in their own store, but they also stand in solidarity with Starbucks workers around the country and hope to serve as inspiration for all workers fighting for greater representation.

Whitmire echoed those sentiments: "We love Starbucks, and that's why we do what we do. We love each other. We just want to have respect from management – the same respect that we give everyone."

Cover photo: Collage: Screenshot/Twitter/lailaddaltonn & Alyssa Sanchez

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