labor Fired for Unionizing: A Starbucks Worker on How the Coffee Giant Betrayed Its ‘Partners’
On March 31, just two days after former Starbucks CEO and current board member Howard Schultz told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) that the coffee giant doesn’t retaliate or break the law, Starbucks fired Buffalo-based barista Alexis Rizzo. Rizzo, a seven-year employee at Starbucks, served as a shift supervisor at the time of her firing. She was one of the first members of Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), the barista union that first gained steam in 2021 and is now present at more than 300 stores across the country.
SBWU sees Rizzo’s firing as yet another anti-union retaliation and has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board , adding to the 500-plus unfair labor practice charges that are already pending against or settled with the company. The Progressive spoke with Rizzo in the aftermath of her firing. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: When did you first start getting involved in organizing work?
Alexis Rizzo: Richard Bensinger, who’s one of the organizers for the union, was a customer at my store for years. I can’t remember when he first came in. But we had a couple conversations whenever he was in the store about the potentiality of unionizing Starbucks. And it didn’t feel like the right time. And then during the pandemic in 2021, in the summer, we started talking about unionizing for real. And I was contacted by Jaz [Brisack], we talked about it, and it kind of went from there. So I was part of the original organizing committee that sent a letter to [former CEO] Kevin Johnson here in Buffalo.
Q: What store were you at?
Rizzo: This was Genesee Street, so we were the first to unionize along with the Elmwood [store].
Q: What was it like when you were first organizing both in your store and in the city? What kinds of work did you do? What kinds of activities were you involved in?
Rizzo: At first, it was incredible. It was very positive. A lot of it was just me trying to organize my own store partners. So myself and a couple other supervisors that were really pro-union started having a lot of conversations with our folks and getting them to understand why this could be beneficial for us. And it was really exciting. There was a lot of momentum in those first six months, and then the company started the anti-union campaign and it all got scary after that.
Really, it was just a lot of personal conversations and heart-to-hearts. We would visit other Starbucks stores in our area and try to organize [them]. We started thinking about our contract, writing proposals, trying to bargain with Genesee Street and Elmwood. We had a few bargaining sessions initially over Zoom. And then the company refused to bargain.
Q: How would you describe your relationships with your coworkers in the store?
Rizzo: They’re not just coworkers. They’re like my family, like my best friends. I spend more time with them than with my family. I call [my baristas] my kids. I loved them. It’s not just like losing a job.
We’ve all supported each other.
People think that when you have a tenured partner like myself who has been with the company for so many years, they think [they stay on because of] the benefits that Howard Schultz talks about, but it’s not. It’s the relationships that we form at work. If you ask any Starbucks partners what they love the most about their job, they’ll tell you, “Oh it’s my partners.”
Q: What is it about working at Starbucks that you think creates a bond?
Rizzo: The trauma, definitely the trauma. It’s a really difficult job. I know people see it as pouring coffee. And that’s like the general consensus, right? But if you walk into a Starbucks, especially a Starbucks in a big city during peak hours, and watch the baristas, you can’t say that they’re not working really hard.
We’re so chronically understaffed. There are so many things out of our control. And the only thing we can rely on is each other. It’s literally like a trauma bond. It creates really strong friendships and relationships. And that’s why we were so successful in organizing, because it’s not just going up to a coworker you barely know, it’s like walking up to your best friend.
Q: What’s it like knowing that you helped spark this nationwide movement?
Rizzo: It’s a strange feeling. I feel like, regardless of what happens to the Starbucks campaign, we’ve ignited…a younger generation in the labor movement to create a better workplace for ourselves. We’ve seen so many other campaigns start up, like the Amazon campaign. So many things have happened since then.
It’s bittersweet, because the company has ruined a lot of people’s lives that I care about because of this. I had to watch Sam Amato get fired after thirteen years. And seeing what it’s done to him personally has been one of the hardest things. Just knowing that, for every Sam that is there, there’s hundreds of other partners across the country that they’ve done this to. And all the other partners who’ve been forced to quit because of how terrible they made the working conditions in union stores. But at the end of the day, it just galvanizes me to fight harder. [I hope] the company gets what they deserve and gets outed for what they’re doing, because it’s illegal.
Q: How did you get interested in unions in the first place?
Rizzo: I grew up very poor. Like [living in] section eight housing, food stamps, getting evicted every year. And Starbucks helped me lift myself out of that in a way and allowed me to take care of myself. But it also showed me how easy it is for the average worker to be exploited—the amount of hours I’ve worked off the clock, and things like emotional labor that I’ve put in with no pay; and how poorly people that I care about were treated by this company, and seeing the dichotomy of that and how Starbucks was portrayed in the news. That’s what made me realize that there’s something wrong with the way labor functions in this country.
Q: Had you been in a union before?
Rizzo: No, [this was] my only job. I’ve worked at Starbucks since I was seventeen.
Q: And so they let you go for tardiness. And I think they said you were late four times?
Rizzo: Yeah, two of them are me being one minute late; one was five minutes late; and one was four minutes late.
Q: So in total, they said you were late by eleven minutes?
Rizzo: They also cited two other prior written warnings that they’ve given me since the beginning of the union campaign. [Prior to that] I’ve never had any problems in the seven years I've been with the company. But those were both ordered to be thrown out within two weeks [by the NLRB]. They just disregarded that entirely, and separated me anyway for those four times adding up to eleven minutes late since then.
Q: How does it make you feel that they can take this level of punitive action against you, but it requires Bernie Sanders to threaten to subpoena Howard Schultz for him to even answer questions?
Rizzo: Honestly, it makes me angry. But it’s the good kind of anger. It’s the kind of anger that’s keeping us all going and keeping us all in the fight even though we’ve been so beaten down by this company. Because we’re winning. They are delaying it, and delaying it, and delaying it. And they’re putting off the inevitable. But every time we go to court, it’s clear to the NLRB who is at fault here, and what’s going on.
Q: How are you getting by now?
Rizzo: I filed for unemployment, which I’m sure the company will fight. But thankfully, the union will appoint an unemployment lawyer and help me out with dealing with the legal process like the other fired workers have had to do. And then I got accepted for Medicaid, because I lost my health insurance through Starbucks. [I’m] just kind of figuring it out. Thankfully, I have a lot of support from the union. They made a GoFundMe for me, and that’ll let me survive for a couple of months. But it’s definitely gonna be hard. I’m going to try to look for another job until I can get reinstated.
Q: And would you go back to Starbucks if you have the opportunity?
Rizzo: Absolutely. I can’t not. I started this fight, and I’m going to see it through. I know they want me out; they wanted me out for two years. It just took them this long to get me. And the last thing the company wants is for me to be back in my store. So that’s the first thing that I want.
Q: They fired you right after the Schultz testimony. Do you think that had to do with it?
Rizzo: Absolutely. It’s not a question. There’s no man on this earth with a bigger ego than Howard Schultz. He [nearly] ran for president. If you’ve heard him speak . . . I guess you watched the Senate [hearing]. You could tell from the way he was interrupting the Senators and the way that he is as a person. He thinks he is the smartest man. I think he had his ego bruised terribly. I think he felt embarrassed. The whole [hearing] centered around Buffalo. He was talking about our organizing here. And it was like a lot about the city.
Q: Is there anything you want to add? Anything you want to communicate to the general public about what’s happened to you?
Rizzo: There was just so much that’s happened it’s hard to even…I’d say my store manager didn’t want to fire me and she was very upset. It was over her head, personally. She didn’t make that decision. She said it was like an investigation that had come back and she was crying. She made me hug her a couple of times. It was very hard.
I just want people to understand it’s one thing to read about union busting and know that a company is union busting, but to live through it, for the average worker, it’s just been so stressful and so terrifying. Most of the people who started in the stores that are union now are gone, because it’s impossible to deal with. And they know exactly what they’re doing.
Q: So given all that, what keeps you going?
Rizzo: The hope that it can get better. That there’s an end to this. The only other option is giving up, letting them just get away with it, right? We have a lot of people who are not willing to do that, so we’ll just keep fighting. There’s been a lot of people who have had to fight hard and deal with personal loss to accomplish something greater. All the fired partners are still very involved in the campaign here.
Saurav Sarkar is a freelance writer based in the New York area who frequently covers Starbucks Workers United. He can be reached at sauravsarkar.com or on Twitter @sauravthewriter.