Starbucks Is Using the Police as Strikebreakers

At midnight on August 8, the Boston Police Department received an anonymous call telling them to show up to a Starbucks on strike on the Boston University campus around 5:15 a.m., says Spencer Costigan, a shift manager at the store. After arriving, the officers observed a group of strikebreakers carrying away furniture that the Starbucks workers and supporters had been using to maintain a 24/7 picket line without interfering. The police cruiser then stayed for hours and the officers inside refused to disclose who had called them there.

In the nine weeks that the store’s staff were on strike at 874 Commonwealth Avenue, a police cruiser frequently parked outside the picket line for hours; baristas at the store were told that this was standard procedure during a strike. On at least three occasions, according to the striking workers, a prisoner transport van was also parked at the site. Most recently, the workers tweeted that police “harassed and filmed picketers, refused to show their badges,” and misled participants about the law after Starbucks evicted the workers from the property with the threat of trespassing charges.

The marriage of corporate interests and law enforcement is well-known, and not a surprise to many Starbucks workers working to organize a union. “The cops don’t work to enact real justice or to protect people, they exist to protect capital, and they exist to make sure that rich people can force us to go back to work if we get fed up,” says Costigan.

Starbucks Workers United, the group that Starbucks workers are organizing under, has reported multiple incidents of police being called in to stores, not just in Boston but in cities across the country, as the organizing wave that has led to more than 320 Starbucks stores filing for (and in about 240 stores, winning) a union election continues to gain momentum.

In Astoria, New York, barista Austin Locke says he was illegally fired on July 5 at 11:45am after the Starbucks at which he worked for almost three years fired him for failing to fill out a COVID log and, according to the company, falsely reporting workplace violence. When Locke began speaking to his coworkers about what had just happened, management asserted he was still “behind the line.” They asked him to leave the work area, he says, but gave him permission to stay in the lobby in the store.

That is, until they abruptly reversed course, ushered customers out of the store, locked the doors, and called the police on Locke for trespassing. “They didn’t tell me to leave,” says Locke. “They wanted to make an example out of me to scare the workers from organizing more with the union, being more public, taking more action, and I think for a time it had an effect.”

“They wanted to make an example out of me to scare the workers from organizing more with the union, being more public, taking more action, and I think for a time it had an effect.”

Locke had been physically stopped from entering a room by a manager and had reported it; he says video of the incident exists, though it doesn’t show the physical act. New York City’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, however, found Locke’s story to be credible enough to sue Starbuckson his behalf for firing him without just cause. “Why did they call the cops? I didn’t do anything. I’m technically illegally fired. So they’re in the wrong, why are they calling the cops?” Locke says.

Other baristas around the country have also reported that Starbucks management has threatened to—or actually called—law enforcement when workers have resisted a seemingly unjust firing.

On August 2, in Pittsburgh, former Starbucks employee Brett Taborelli’s manager attempted to force them to quit without allowing them to exercise their Weingarten rights, which offer a unionized worker the right to representation from their union when they believe they are about to be disciplined in a conversation.

When Taborelli refused to accept the outcome in the conversation, management threatened to call the police. “As a queer person, even hearing [that they might call the police] was very overwhelming to me,” they told The Progressive in an interview. “And I was like, ‘Why would you call the police on me? I’m still technically an active employee. You’re telling me you’re not terminating me, [that] I’m choosing to quit.’”

Though Starbucks euphemistically calls its employees “partners,” the company has even called the police on their own workers at captive audience meetings. After one such meeting at a hotel where workers from an Overland Park, Kansas Starbucks were gathered, management called law enforcement because workers were gathered to talk amongst themselves, says barista Alydia Claypool. “It makes it really hard to have trust in management because they constantly claim that they’re not anti-union, and then they do stuff like that,” she adds. “It’s like, wait a second, this doesn’t add up.”

In Anderson, South Carolina, a manager reported eleven workers to the police for “assault” and “kidnapping” because they held a “march on the boss” against her in August. Despite video evidence disproving these charges, the police conducted an investigation into the issue. Starbucks then used this investigation to justify subjecting the eleven workers to a paid suspension and a ban from all Starbucks stores. Eventually, three of the workers were fired for an unrelated incident.

That wasn’t the store’s workers’ only interaction with the police. A customer, who “rolled coal”—blew out the exhaust of his truck—on them three times while they were on strike, also called the cops on the baristas. When police showed up, the officers blamed the workers for putting themselves in harm’s way and questioned why they were on strike at all.

These incidents exemplify how Starbucks’ management frequently has no meaningful way to handle assertive workers. When the flow of day-to-day operations was challenged, management’s answer was to bring in the cops.

Meanwhile, workers, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and even a federal judge have determined that Starbucks has repeatedly broken labor law. According to the NLRB, there were 326 unfair labor practice charges open against the company or its union-busting law firm, Littler Mendelson, as of September 13.

Starbucks’s clear violations include discriminating against unionized workers and workplaces, illegally firing workers, and refusing to bargain in good faith. “When [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz breaks the law, we are not allowed to call the cops on him, even if what he’s doing is flatly illegal, and what we’re doing is allegedly legally protected,” says Costigan. “We as workers do not have the same luxury.”