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A Labor Relations Board Judge Says Starbucks Illegally Fired a Washington State Barista

“Violating the National Labor Relations Act has become standard operating procedure for Starbucks,” the judge wrote

A banner at a protest that reads, “Hey Starbucks, stop union busting!”
A protest outside Starbucks corporate headquarters in 2023.
Harry Cheadle
Harry Cheadle is the editor of Eater Seattle.

In a decision dated Friday, January 12, a federal judge at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) declared that Starbucks broke labor law by disciplining and ultimately firing a barista at a store in Marysville, Washington, and ordered the coffee company to rehire them and give them a promotion they’d been denied.

Admonishments by the NLRB are pretty routine for Starbucks at this point. The federal regulatory body ruled last year that the Seattle-born caffeine giant broke the law when dealing with the union at Seattle’s first unionized store and in another case ordered Starbucks to give back pay to union-supporting baristas who had been denied opportunities. Last month, a Seattle-based regional director at the NLRB filed a complaint seeking to force the company to reopen 23 stores that were allegedly closed because their employees (“partners” in internal Starbucks lingo) engaged in union activity.

The NLRB judge noted this in his decision. “Starbucks has become the unusual employer that targets for discipline its most dedicated ‘partners,’” he wrote. “The violations established in this case were not isolated incidents, rather a widespread pattern. It appears that in many instances violating the National Labor Relations Act has become standard operating procedure for Starbucks.”

The January 12 decision concerned Quinn McCoy, who worked in the coffee shop inside the Lakewood Crossing mall in Marysville. McCoy appeared to be by most standards a model employee — they worked there for a little over a year starting in 2021 and in that short time got declared the “Partner of the Quarter” by their coworkers twice and been promoted to barista trainer, according to the NLRB decision. McCoy worked 25 to 30 hours a week while attending high school and taking college courses; for part of the time they were also living out of their car in the store parking lot.

“When it’s really cold in Washington, staying in your car is not fun,” they said in a video made by the pro-union media outlet More Perfect Union. “I remember not being able to sleep one night before my opening shift... We opened at 4:30 in the morning and I’m just in my car shivering.”

In April 2022, McCoy helped organize a three-day strike at the store brought on by complaints about reduced staffing and a rat infestation. They also began organizing a union campaign under the banner of Starbucks Workers United (SWU), which has unionized hundreds of stores across the U.S. Because of this, McCoy says, they were disciplined by the store manager for minor infractions involving the store dress code and denied a promotion to shift supervisor, which was ultimately given to a barista who wasn’t pro-union. Three months after the strike, Quinn was fired supposedly for recording a conversation with their manager.

“Starbucks illegally fired me at 18 years old as I was just about to graduate high school,” said McCoy in a SWU press release. “At the time, a lot of us at my store were really struggling financially and in our personal lives. The endless stream of new store managers who knew our personal hardships either didn’t care or tried to pretend we weren’t all living paycheck to paycheck.”

The NLRB judge agreed that Quinn had been targeted for their union activities and that their recording was protected under law. The decision orders Starbucks to reinstate Quinn with back pay and offer them the shift supervisor position; it also orders the company to post a notice of its labor law violations at the Lakewood Crossing store.

This decision by the judge will be reviewed by the board and can be appealed in federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court recently announced it would hear a similar case involving a group of union-supporting Starbucks employees who were fired, and justices could rule to make it harder for the NLRB to order workers to be reinstated or stores reopened.

“We disagree with the administrative law judge’s recommendations and intend to file exceptions — or an appeal — in this matter,” a Starbucks spokesperson wrote in a statement to Eater Seattle when asked about the decision.

At least for now, SWU is celebrating this as a major victory. “These rulings continue to prove that even Starbucks isn’t above the law The workers are winning, and we will continue to organize and become stronger,” McCoy said. “Being reinstated is incredibly validating to the collective trauma we all faced as Starbucks tried to discourage our union efforts and paint me as just a teenager with an attitude problem.”