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She Organized a Starbucks. Then They Fired Her

Frédérique Martineau says despite the corporation’s justification, she feels targeted.

Zak Vescera 22 Nov 2023The Tyee

Zak Vescera is The Tyee’s labour reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

In February, then 20-year-old barista Frédérique Martineau helped unionize the Vancouver Starbucks where she worked as a shift supervisor.

In September, the company closed the store.

And this month, Starbucks fired Martineau, who had moved to another outlet.

Martineau, who had worked at the company for five years, said she was fired for what she calls vague reasons related to the corporation’s “standard of communication.”

But she believes the real reason is her organizing work with the United Steelworkers, which wants to unionize the coffee giant’s locations in British Columbia and Alberta.

Martineau said things changed after her organizing efforts.

“I don’t think they ever wanted me. I think they knew what they were going to do.”

In a statement, a Starbucks spokesperson said no employee “has been or will be disciplined or separated for supporting, organizing or otherwise engaging in lawful union activity.” The company did not respond to specific questions about why Martineau was fired.

It is the latest in a long series of conflicts between Starbucks and United Steelworkers, which has accused the company of trying to discourage organizing and punish employees who vote to unionize.

United Steelworkers District 3 director Scott Lunny, who represents the union’s members across Western Canada, said the company should give Martineau her job back.

He said the union has filed yet another legal complaint against Starbucks at the BC Labour Relations Board, in part because of Martineau’s termination.

“This is not a step in the right direction for our relationship with Starbucks,” Lunny said.

Martineau’s campaign

Martineau began organizing with United Steelworkers Local 2009 while working as a shift supervisor at a Starbucks in Vancouver’s tony Dunbar neighbourhood.

Martineau had been a partner — the company’s term for employee — with the company for years in Canada and the United States. But she said staff at the Dunbar location felt overworked and underappreciated.

That led to a successful, covert campaign to unionize the location with Local 2009, which already represented the only other three unionized Starbucks shops in British Columbia.

The move was fiercely opposed by managers, Martineau said, adding she never intended to hurt the company.

“I was just trying to make everyone’s lives better,” she said. “I’m not out to get anyone. I’m not out to get Starbucks. I’m just trying to make the job we all love better.”

Months later, in September, Starbucks confirmed it would close the Dunbar location, saying its lease had come up for renewal.

“I was like, touché. You got me there,” Martineau said in a recent interview. “Maybe I’ll unionize another one.”

Staff who opted to stay with the company were offered new jobs at other locations. Martineau landed at the store’s location at West 16th Avenue and Macdonald Street, in the Arbutus Ridge neighbourhood.

Martineau said things weren’t the same. She wasn’t hired as a shift supervisor, meaning she was effectively demoted. Her hours were reduced.

And in the first week of November, she said, managers told her in front of colleagues and customers that she was under investigation.

Martineau said she was accused of violating the company’s communication policy by complaining about her reduced shifts, and of allegedly using profanity in the workplace — something she denied.

She said she was also told some employees were uncomfortable with her discussing the unionization at the Dunbar store, even though management explicitly told her she was allowed to talk about it.

A few days later, Martineau said, she showed up early for a shift. She put on her apron, plugged in a dead iPad and was greeting customers and sorting dishes when she was called into the backroom and fired.

She left crying, she said, and called the union.

Lunny said he has little doubt Martineau’s termination was related to her role with the Steelworkers.

Martineau spearheaded the unionization effort on Dunbar Street and spoke in the media about her experience leading that campaign, including with The Tyee.

“It certainly was not a secret to anyone that Frédérique was a leader in the union and a leader amongst the Starbucks workers,” Lunny said.

Lunny said the Steelworkers had been working with Starbucks to broker an agreement to support staff from the closed Dunbar store, including a promise there would be no retaliation against union organizers. But he said that deal was never finalized.

Starbucks and Steelworkers

Martineau’s termination is just the latest flashpoint between the Steelworkers and Starbucks in B.C., and part of a much larger trend of the company fighting a wave of labour organizing at its stores across North America.

The Steelworkers filed a legal complaint against Starbucks earlier this year after the company gave a pay bump to all its employees in B.C., except those who had joined a union. The company later reversed its decision and agreed to pay out those workers.

The union has a separate complaint filed against the company, alleging it is improperly withholding tips from staff at a unionized shop in Victoria. And a pair of other unionized stores in Surrey and Langley voted in favour of a strike earlier this year after the company and union failed to negotiate a first contract.

Lunny said the Steelworkers have now filed yet another unfair labour practice complaint with the province’s labour board, related in part to Martineau’s termination and in part to the ongoing bargaining at the Surrey and Langley locations.

“We can’t really seem to get a collective agreement that’s acceptable to those stores,” Lunny said.

Lunny said he doesn’t aim to pick a fight with Starbucks, or any employer. But he said the coffee company hasn’t been willing to meet workers’ demands.

“They’re not outrageous demands that these folks have, considering how hard they work and how much money Starbucks makes,” Lunny said.

The Steelworkers have not filed an unfair labour practice complaint related to the closing of the Dunbar store.

The Steelworkers don’t have concrete proof, Lunny said, that the union bid was why the store closed.

But Martineau said she personally believes that is the case.

“Me being terminated perhaps sheds new light on why the store was closed. Because if it’s not because we were union, then why fire the organizer?” Martineau said.

Starbucks, in statements to The Tyee, has repeatedly said it has no problem with employees unionizing.

But the company has come under scrutiny in the United States for its tough line on unionization. Former CEO Howard Schultz appeared before a Senate hearing to testify on the subject this March.

Martineau, for her part, said she is not sure what she will do if the company declines to give her back her job.

But she said she does not regret what she did.

“I don’t regret it, because at the end of the day I know that all I was doing was looking out for everyone that I worked with,” Martineau said.  [Tyee]

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