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Union Starbucks workers say organizer was illegally fired over protected labor activity

Workers on strike outside of a Starbucks store downtown. Strikers hold up signs with slogans like "Bargain don't bully" and "Respect unions now!" They stand under and in front of a tent with a big sign on the side that says "Starbucks Corporate: Stop Unfair Labor Practices! Respect our union."
Josh Peck
Workers on strike in December in front of the East Houston and St. Mary's Starbucks store.

Starbucks union workers in San Antonio have filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge against the company following the company’s decision to fire union organizer Robert Hernandez on April 12.

Union workers say Hernandez is at least the second barista in San Antonio fired over protected labor activity.

Hernandez’s managers cited multiple instances of tardiness over a 13-month period in a final warning shortly before he was fired, according to workers and a Starbucks spokesperson.

Though Hernandez acknowledged his time and attendance issues, he said it was never considered a serious problem by managers until after he started the union effort at his store.

“After I started union organizing, I was no longer the favorite, so I wasn’t given the same grace that I was once given when it came to my time and attendance,” Hernandez said. “So yeah, they just switched up my working conditions and fired me off of time and attendance because I was a union organizer.”

He added that managers regularly let staff off the hook for being late before the union drive.

“They had never enforced time and attendance at my store ever,” he said. “We’ve had multiple partners show up 15 minutes late, 20 minutes late, 30 minutes late every single day, five minutes late. We have people call in once a week and they never get reprimanded for it.”

Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull said Hernandez denied the accusation.

“[Robert Hernandez’s firing was] not in retaliation for their participation in, or support of, any concerted union activities,” he said in a statement.

Robert Hernandez stands in the center of the frame during a strike at the Starbucks on East Houston and St. Mary's in December.
Josh Peck
Robert Hernandez (center) at a strike at the Starbucks on East Houston and St. Mary's in December.

It is often not enough for a company to say they disciplined or fired someone for breaking a store policy when the situation involves protected labor activity. Employers must also demonstrate that their enforcement of those rules was consistent with enforcement before protected labor activity began.

Administrative law judges in other places like Memphis, Tennessee, and Buffalo, New York, have ordered Starbucks to reinstate workers they fired using that standard.

Hernandez said he was the primary organizer at his store, and that the union will likely falter without him.

“Now that I’m gone because they fired me, the union drive is basically non-existent because there’s no one there anchoring it anymore,” he said. “So they did succeed in busting my union.”

In cases where unionized Starbucks workers have filed unfair labor practice charges against the company, the goal is often to force Starbucks to offer reinstatement and backpay. But Hernandez said he isn’t sure if he would come back even if the NLRB finds the company in the wrong.

“I don’t really know if I would want to work there again because it’s just a hostile environment for me, especially since I was an organizer, I don’t really feel welcome in the company anymore,” he said.

For now, he said hopes to prove what the company did was wrong.

“The goal is to take this to court, see if we’re able to own up to their union busting and retaliation against union organizers in San Antonio,” Hernandez said.

It may take months before the NLRB issues any ruling on the case.

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