by Jordan Zakarin
Less than a week after her store in Buffalo won its union election, Starbucks has fired lead union organizer Victoria Conklin in what she says is a clear case of retaliation.
Conklin was fired on June 22nd for being late to work for the first time in her nearly five years at the company. The firing came days after the National Labor Relations Board sought an emergency injunction in federal court to force Starbucks to rehire seven other Buffalo union-leaders that it illegally fired over the past six months.
“They fired me because they scheduled me to do a ‘clopening,’ which is when you close the store and open it the next morning, and I overslept and was late by 20 minutes,” Conklin told More Perfect Union. “But the store opened on time, we didn’t lose any customers or anything. The only thing I couldn’t serve when we opened was iced tea, because it takes about five minutes to seep.”
Several weeks prior, Conklin was given a first write-up and final warning for the way she locked up the cash register before workers at her store went on strike on May 7th. Workers there went on strike over what they called unfair labor practices and unsafe conditions. A coworker had recently been badly burned on the job but forced to continue working with no time off to heal.
Conklin’s description of the lead-up to the strike suggests that the write-up she received from management was retaliatory in nature. She secured the cash register and locked the cash inside of it, dutifully escorted customers out, and shut down the drive-thru before closing the store. Starbucks Workers United’s lawyer told Conklin that her actions were sufficient — workers often abandon their posts as they are when they go on strike — but the coffee conglomerate disciplined Conklin for not removing the cash from the register and placing it in a safe.
The firing ends a tumultuous past nine months with the company for Conklin, who said she opposed union organizing efforts when Starbucks Workers United first kicked off its campaign in August 2021. Over the course of the next four months, Conklin’s store was regularly visited by Starbucks’ then-president Rossann Williams, who decamped to Buffalo in the fall to lead a massive campaign to scuttle the union organizing effort. Williams frequently asked Conklin what changes she hoped to see in the store, then orchestrated improvements that addressed the issues.
Later, Conklin learned that what Williams was doing was known as soliciting grievances, which is illegal during union campaigns under NLRB rules. It was one of several wake-up calls during the course of the union campaign. “I was like, she’s been playing me this whole time,” Conklin recalled.
Conklin was also privy to months of private conversations between managers about trying to squelch the workers’ organizing, and was frequently given explicit instructions to help with union-busting. Managers told her not to allow pro-union workers from other stores to take shifts at her East Robinson store. That included workers from the Elmwood store, which became the first Starbucks location to vote to unionize in December.
“I was supposed to come up with a reason that they couldn’t make the shift,” Conklin said. “Then my manager would just make a bunch of illegal comments, like ‘I don’t want union people working here’ or ‘these union people are so annoying, thank god it’s never gonna come here.’”
Another time, a manager told Conklin that she could no longer wear light wash jeans to work, as they were cracking down on dress code so that union supporters couldn’t wear pins featuring the Starbucks Workers United logo.
Conklin’s opinion began to shift as Starbucks’ union-busting became more obvious and the company continued to disregard the health and safety of its workers, even those that did not support the union. The breaking point came in early 2021, when New York State reinstated its mask requirement as the Omicron variant drove a huge spike in Covid cases. Starbucks workers at the Elmwood location went on strike to protest the company’s mask policy, and soon, Conklin joined them.
“I was told that you can’t ask customers to wear masks, and I was like, ‘I don’t think so,’” she says. “And so I went to the picket line and signed my union card.”
The resentment from management over her reversal was palpable — “when I wore the pin, they couldn’t come within a three-foot radius of me” — and led to reckless retaliation that endangered the staff.
“My old manager started just terrorizing me any way she could,” Conklin recalls. “I’d been getting sexually harassed by another partner at work and she told me that I was lying about it. [She said] that if I told anybody the lie that he’d been sexually harassing me, it basically was grounds for termination and that I should watch my mouth.”
Several other workers soon complained about the partner’s pattern of sexual harassment, and he was fired soon thereafter. “And on my birthday,” she said. “Happy birthday to me.”
The East Robinson store won its election, 7-4, after Conklin spent six months organizing her co-workers. Now, she’s taking her own firing in stride. Conlklin already filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, will continue working with Starbucks Workers United, and plans to dive head-first into other organizing projects around the city of Buffalo.