Wisconsin union organizer says Starbucks fired him days after union vote

Coffee chain is the subject of federal labor complaints in New York, Arizona alleging retaliation against union activists

A Starbucks barista helps out a union drive of Starbucks Workers United in Mesa, Arizona, February 16, 2022.
A Starbucks barista helps out a union drive of Starbucks Workers United in Mesa, Arizona, February 16, 2022. A union organizer in Wisconsin says he was fired just days after his Starbucks store’s union election. Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

A union organizer at a central Wisconsin Starbucks says he was fired just days after employees there voted to unionize.

Kolton Gosnell was one of two organizers at the Starbucks in Plover to go public with the unionization push in February. Efforts to unionize local stores are also part of a national movement involving workers at the coffee chain in New York state, Michigan, North Carolina and elsewhere. In Wisconsin, workers in Oak Creek and Madison have also announced union drives.

According to Gosnell, the Plover union won the vote last week after months of organizing and counter-organizing by the company. The vote was 7 to 5, with one additional challenged ballot not yet counted, which would not affect the outcome.

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“We won our election on Wednesday,” said Gosnell, 21. “I came in on Friday morning, and (managers) sat me down after I’d opened and worked a little over half my shift. They read me a piece of paper; it was their statement of separation.”

The stated reason for his termination was that he’d broken company rules by being in the back of the store while he was off the clock, and being present in April after the store closed when he was off the clock. Gosnell admits that he did those things. But he calls the policies selectively enforced.

“I 100 percent believe it was related to my union organizing,” he said. “The rules were applied unevenly on one person.”

Federal law protects union organizing and prohibits employers from retaliating against those involved in union drives.

Gosnell said he had never been warned or written up for the behavior before he was fired. He said he came to the store after closing one day in April to join a coworker’s birthday party, which many other baristas also attended.

A spokesperson for Starbucks declined to address the specifics of Gosnell’s case, but in a statement said “a partner’s interest in the union does not exempt them from the standards we have always held.”

“We will continue to enforce our policies consistently for all partners,” the company’s statement said.

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board filed a lengthy complaint against the Seattle-based company for allegedly retaliating against union organizers in Buffalo, New York by firing them, reducing their pay, intimidating organizers and other means. And last month, federal officials in Phoenix told a judge the company had taken similar actions there, asking for reinstatement of three fired union activists. In both cases, Starbucks has denied the allegations.

The company also recently announced that it would raise pay and benefits for its baristas — but only for nonunion stores. Some labor law experts have called that a “legal gray area.”

Gosnell said he’ll seek reinstatement to his job, including back pay from missed shifts. He said he is scheduled to speak with a National Labor Relations Board investigator this week. In the meantime, one of the fired Starbucks workers from Phoenix created a GoFundMe page for Gosnell.

“Obviously it is stressful being fired by a company,” Gosnell said. “But I am completely shocked by the amount of support I’ve seen on social media.”

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