On February 13, while washing dishes in the back room of the Raleigh Starbucks she works at, Sharon Gilman says that the three-compartment sink separated from the wall, falling toward her. She stepped backward and called for her shift supervisor. The two documented the damage, taking photos and videos, and the shift supervisor called in a work order. Then Gilman went home.

On April 9, Ed Harvey, a Starbucks manager, showed up at the 2901 Sherman Oaks store that Gilman works at, called her out from her shift, and fired her. 

In a notice of termination reviewed by the INDY, Starbucks cited “intentional miuse of store equipment” by Gilman that generated a “concern for personal safety.” 

“Ed sat me down and asked, ‘Were you upset? Did something happen that night? Maybe you were frustrated’? I was like, No. First of all, this was literally a month and a half ago,” Gilman says. “It just broke off the wall.” 

Gilman, 20, is one of the seven employees at the 2901 Sherman Oak Place location in Raleigh to put their names on a letter declaring intent to unionize. The letter was submitted to former Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson—who has since been replaced by Howard Schultz—on February 15.

As reported in a feature by the INDY Week in mid-March, workers at the 2901 Sherman Oaks Starbucks location are the first Starbucks workers in North Carolina to file for a union election. Ballots for the company’s union election are supposed to go out this week. 

Over the phone, a Starbucks spokesperson maintained to the INDY that the termination is “unrelated to current unionization efforts at the stores.”

In an email, a company spokesperson wrote that “video footage confirmed that Sharon intentionally caused damage by forcefully pulling on a sink hose until it snapped.” 

“This is an extreme example of retaliation by Starbucks,” says Chris Baumann, Southern Region Director of Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “Instead of firing her, the company should have been apologetic that equipment in their store was in such disrepair that a sink almost fell on an employee.” 

Gilman, a student at North Carolina State University, says that she was surprised to be fired and agrees that the termination feels like retaliation. 

“My name was on the letter,” she says. “My name was in a news article, in the press release.” 

Since the first Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York, went public with a union campaign in August, an unprecedented organizing fever has swept through the company, with workers at more than 175 stores in 25 states filing for union elections as of early April. There are roughly 9,000 stores nationwide.

The company—which has largely enjoyed a progressive reputation since its 1971 founding—has responded strongly to organizing efforts with a full-court anti-union press, sending senior officials to stores, holding meetings with workers, and firing several workers in prominent organizing roles. 

Gilman is at least the tenth unionizing Starbucks worker to be fired from the company. Last week—the same day that Howard Schultz started his role as interim CEO of the company—Laila Dalton, an outspoken Phoenix barista and union leader, was fired from her job for recording co-workers’ conversations without their permission. 

At a forum that day Schultz told employees that “we can’t ignore what is happening in the country as it relates to companies throughout the country being assaulted in many ways by the threat of unionization.” 

The most high-profile store firings occurred at a Memphis Starbucks in early February, when seven unionizing employees were fired for violating company safety rules; earlier this week, NLRB officials determined that the Memphis worker terminations were illegal and announced intent to issue a complaint unless there is a settlement. 

Baumann says that SEIU is planning to file charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) first thing on Monday morning requesting that Gilman be reinstated at her job. 

“I love the people I work with,” Gilman says. “They’re some of the best friendships and relationships that I’ve formed. I’m not from Raleigh, I’m actually from Virginia, so when I moved down here for school they took me under their wing.”

In a text message, Alyssa White, another barista at the 2901 Sherman Place store, told the INDY that organizing employees plan to protest at the store on Monday. 

“Starbucks is determined to try to crush this union drive that’s being led by Starbucks partners across the country,” says Baumann. “Now that Howard Schultz the old CEO has come back, it sounds like it’s his mission to destroy this union drive. He keeps trying to make it sound like it’s this effort that’s coming from outside the company. It’s very much the reverse.”

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