A growing number of Starbucks baristas are wearing a suicide awareness pin at work — an act of defiance and solidarity after a union leader in Buffalo, N.Y., says he was fired for wearing it.
Baristas at cafes in Oklahoma, Washington, Arizona, Vermont, Kansas, New Jersey and Tennessee have been wearing the pin, according to Starbucks Workers United (SBWU).
The subtle protest comes as the coffee giant continues its relentless onslaught of union busting against SBWU, which has successfully unionized some 250 cafes since December 2021. Meanwhile, the union says workers have reported more than 120 “retaliatory firings.” In a news release, SBWU says it has filed more than “80 charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on behalf of fired workers.”
Will Westlake, the barista in Buffalo who says he was fired — at one of the first Starbucks stores to file for a union election, in 2021 — began wearing the pin on his apron in the spring with fellow baristas to honor a coworker and fellow union supporter who had recently died by suicide. (The store narrowly voted against a unionization effort.) Made by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), the pin reads: “You are not alone.” The group describes the pin as “a small gesture to show someone that you care.”
“The pins were a way of honoring the coworker, of quietly but proudly having something we were sharing and all going through in the wake of tragedy,” Westlake says.
After the first week of wearing the pin, Westlake says the store’s management told employees it was a violation of the company’s dress code — which, according to multiple workers, allows only Starbucks-approved pins and a single pro-labor pin — and must be removed.
“It really wasn’t okay with me that this was the thing they decided was going to be the most important to them to crack down on,” Westlake says. “My feeling was that this was a mistake on the company’s part and that if I just refused to take it off, they would back down. But I was wrong.”
Westlake says managers continuously sent him home from shifts for wearing the pin over four months. He adds that at least one manager suggested he put the pin in his pocket or wear it underneath his apron. Meanwhile, when Westlake would pick up shifts at other nearby Starbucks locations, he says he was not penalized for wearing the pin, and at one store was even praised.
“He even picked up a shift for me at my store and wore the pin, and the shift supervisor complimented the pin,” says Casey Moore, another SBWU leader at a Starbucks in Buffalo.
Westlake believes management at his store did not want employees bonding together over issues like this because they consider it too close to union activity.
“I think they still wanted to punish my store for being one of the first to file for a union election,” Westlake says. “I think they wanted to get rid of me for being a union leader.”
When asked about Westlake’s termination, a Starbucks company spokesperson told In These Times: “No Starbucks partner has been or will be disciplined for supporting or engaging in lawful union activity — but interest in a union does not exempt partners from following policies and procedures that apply to all partners.”
The NLRB and federal judges have identified numerous instances of Starbucks workers being illegally disciplined, discriminated against or fired for union activity.
In one example from August, a federal judge in Tennessee ordered Starbucks to reinstate seven fired union supporters because, in part — according to an NLRB news release — Starbucks “directed a wide variety of coercive measures at its employees” that included “discipling the employee responsible for starting the [union] campaign.” In another example from July 2021, the NLRB found the “Starbucks Coffee Company unlawfully retaliated against two Philadelphia baristas in response to their efforts to unionize the Seattle-based company.”
At the height of the George Floyd protests in 2020, Starbucks faced backlash after reportedly banning employees from wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts and buttons, only to quickly reverse course.
Westlake says he was terminated on October 4. SBWU quickly filed an unfair labor practice allegation with the NLRB and says in a press release that it is “confident [Westlake] will win his job back.”
That same day, SBWU posted a TikTok video of Westlake explaining how he was fired for wearing the pin. The video has so far received 2.8 million views and more than 17,000 comments.
“Everyone at our store was heartbroken and really angry at what happened to Will,” says Neha Cremin, a barista at a Starbucks in Oklahoma City that unionized in June.
“He was the person who first responded to us when we reached out about wanting to know more about unionizing. He’s the one who really guided us through the whole process,” Cremin explains. “Without him, we couldn’t have done what we did.”
Cremin says many workers at all three unionized Starbucks stores in Oklahoma City have started wearing the AFSP pin in solidarity with Westlake since his firing.
Maggie Carter, an SBWU organizer who works at a unionized store in Knoxville, Tenn., has been wearing the suicide awareness pin to work every day since July when she first learned Westlake had been told to take it off.
Sara Mughal, a shift supervisor and SBWU member at a unionized Starbucks in Hopewell, N.J., says that, beginning this summer, every employee in her store has been wearing the pin.
“A lot of people in my store either personally or through family and friends know people who suffer from mental health issues and know how unsupportive this company is about those kinds of things,” Mughal says.
Just a week after firing Westlake, the union says Starbucks encouraged workers to observe World Mental Health Day.
“Cruel and Disgusting”
Multiple baristas have relayed inconsistencies in how Starbucks enforces its dress code.
Cremin (in Oklahoma) and Mughal (in New Jersey), who have both been wearing the pin, say managers have not said anything to them about the pin violating the company’s dress code. Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment on this apparent inconsistency.
“I’ve worn non-Starbucks-related pins and gotten complimented on them by my manager,” Mughal says. “And I’m talking about pins about TV shows and favorite characters. So, something as meaningful as a suicide awareness pin in a store where you’ve had a coworker pass away, that’s clearly just targeting in the most cruel and disgusting way.”
Westlake says that, just a couple days before his firing, management at his store started letting workers wear Buffalo Bills gear on game days. “I support that, I think that’s fun,” he says, “but it seems funny that everyone would be completely out of dress code one day a week, and yet this one-inch-wide pin that says, ‘You are not alone,’ with pinkies interlocked, is somehow so offensive that I can’t work.”
Anticipating the start of contract negotiations — which Starbucks has largely delayed for nearly a year — SBWU’s elected national bargaining committee recently unveiled a set of non-economic proposals, two of which would address issues of workplace attire and appearance. One would protect the wearing of pro-union paraphernalia, the other would effectively dismantle the existing dress code (outside of local, state and federal health codes).
Casey Moore, in Buffalo, says the latter proposal has generated the most interest and engagement from Starbucks workers on social media, especially because the company has been “on a dress code rampage” since the start of the union campaign, using the dress code “to retaliate against people in the most ridiculous ways.”
“It’s ultimately us in the stores who are the ones that actually carry out the values the company has professed for decades,” says Westlake, who is continuing to organize with SBWU. “Even if we have to take them kicking and screaming to the bargaining table to make sure they follow through on those values, we’re ready to do it.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.