On August 1, Melissa Morris, a manager of a Starbucks location in Anderson, South Carolina, accused unionized workers at her store of kidnapping and assaulting her during her first week on the job. The shocking accusation resulted from workers holding a “march on the boss” to demand that they benefit from the same pay raise the company was providing to non-union stores, and, as a result, 11 workers have been suspended while the company and police investigate the issue. These workers call the allegations “ridiculous” and part of the company’s broader anti-union campaign.
Unionized workers in the Anderson store that day had stopped serving customers early to conduct the march on the boss — a common tactic in labor organizing — during which they approached Morris and demanded to get the same raise that baristas at a nearby non-union store had received, from $12 an hour to $15. The discrepancy stems from a national corporate Starbucks policy of providing better benefits and higher raises to workers at non-union stores that critics have called a union-busting strategy.
On August 24, the National Labor Relations Board appeared to agree with this characterization when it said in a complaint that the company must pay back wages denied to unionized stores, claiming that Starbucks’ tactics were “discouraging membership in a labor organization” in violation of the National Labor Relations Act. The labor board’s complaint would also require Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to formally explain to workers their rights to organize in a video and apologize for withholding pay increases to union workers. So far, over 200 Starbucks stores across the country have voted to unionize.
In an email to Lynne Fox, International President of Workers United, an SEIU affiliate and the parent union of Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), Starbucks stated that it would only bargain over wages, benefits and other terms of employment at stores as a “complete contract for each location.”
During the Anderson Starbucks workers’ action, Morris called her district manager to complain. Two days later, on August 3, she officially filed a police report with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office claiming that she was attacked and that employees kidnapped her at the store and “wouldn’t let her leave until they got a raise.” An investigation by the local police is ongoing into Morris’s allegations, according to workers at the store. Morris has since been transferred to another location, say workers.
“Honestly, it just looks crazy,” says Rhi Greer, an 18-year-old barista at the store who took part in the march on the boss. Greer is among the 11 workers who have been suspended indefinitely and banned from entering any Starbucks stores.
“We didn’t make any moves toward her, we didn’t touch her. The doors weren’t locked. We didn’t prevent her from leaving. And she asked to leave. She left. So we thought it was kind of ridiculous that it would go that far,” says Jon Hudson, a 22-year-old worker in the store.
A video of the incident uploaded to TikTok by SBWU has received over 10 million views and shows Hudson standing in place immobile while Morris pushes past him — presumably the alleged “assault.” Audio of the event is also available.
Mya Ourada, a 17-year-old worker at the store loves her job and her coworkers so much that she was willing to take a second job to be able to afford the gas money it takes to get to and from Starbucks.
At the same time, she says, “It’s been really stressful there. It’s been a lot, especially as of recently with the kidnapping and assault charge.”
“Especially [because] I’m actually a minor,” Ourada adds.
The Anderson store is unique in the context of the SBWU campaign. It’s located in a state that boasts just 1.8 percent overall union density and a county that was carried by former President Donald Trump twice, each time by over 40 points.
Nevertheless, in May, workers at the store won their union vote 18 to 0, becoming the first Starbucks in the South to win an election unanimously.
The baristas at the Anderson Starbucks have struck twice since they won their union election. On June 10, they went on strike to protest their store manager’s refusal to allow them to wear union shirts, which they argue was an Unfair Labor Practice. Workers say they received a fair amount of community support when they went on strike, including snacks, water, ice and verbal support while on the picket line in the South Carolina heat.
Then, on July 22, the workers went on strike again over management’s failure to collectively bargain with them over cuts to their hours and changes to store hours. Starbucks emailed In These Times that it will “continue to have thoughtful 1:1 conversations with local leaders about scheduling.”
The cuts to their hours were especially threatening, says Ourada, because workers are ineligible for Starbucks’s vaunted healthcare benefits if they don’t work 20 hours a week. Starbucks responded to a request for comment from In These Times with published statements advertising reproductive health benefits.
Over the course of their two strikes, workers say they were subjected to “rolling coal” attacks, where truck drivers intentionally and illegally let out “big black smoke clouds” of exhaust fumes on them, according to Greer.
All the workers from the store In These Times spoke with emphasized the tight-knit community they have formed. Greer, for example, shares their apartment with two other workers from the store. Hudson said that their coworkers hang out together multiple times a week. The store’s baristas even have a Minecraft server where they play the video game together.
Of the 19 workers at the store, 15 identify as LGTBQ+, including three trans workers, according to 20-year-old shift supervisor Aneil Tripathi. He says the baristas at the Anderson Starbucks are also young, ranging from those under 18 still living with their parents to those in their late 20s.
In addition to the pay raise issue that stemmed from Starbucks’ national policy, workers at the store say they have dealt with numerous other problems over the course of the last year. Prior to unionizing, for example, the workers say their previous manager would routinely call out of work, leaving them to carry the load.
In a statement regarding the incident, Starbucks said: “When a partner claims a threat to their safety or wellbeing at Starbucks, it is our policy to investigate the incident and, if we deem appropriate, suspend (with pay) those who were accused of threatening behavior.” The company added that it had been directed by law enforcement “to refrain from engaging with the 11 partners until [the police] investigation is complete.”
As of this writing, the Anderson 11 were still suspended with no sense of when — or if — they would be welcomed back to a place they value highly in their lives. Where this incident will go next is largely up to the corporation and the police, but one thing is for sure: the workers aren’t going away quietly.
“We just want to work in better conditions and be compensated fairly for what we do,” says Hudson.