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Tossed by Starbucks

The coffee giant fired a young barista. And told a labour board hearing it had nothing to do with her union activism.

Zak Vescera 9 Feb 2024The Tyee

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

Frédérique Martineau loved Starbucks. She worked her first shift for the coffee giant at a mall in California, in the summer between her junior and senior year of high school. In 2021, she moved to Vancouver for university. Within months, she had applied to work there again.

“It was going to be something familiar to me,” she said. Martineau had never lived in Vancouver before. She kept plenty busy — she fosters ferrets and is studying to become a forensic nurse, a goal born in part from her love of true crime. But she missed working at Starbucks. She liked the chatty regulars, making drinks, the pound of free coffee beans she got every week. Most of all, she liked the fellow baristas.

“My experience at Starbucks is that I’ve met a lot of my closest friends there,” Martineau said. “Because you really bond.”

Last November, Martineau was fired, minutes before she was due to start her afternoon shift at a Starbucks location in Kitsilano. Security camera footage from that day shows her wearing the cherry-red apron Starbucks baristas wear in the weeks before Christmas. Her manager hands her a sheet of paper. Martineau stands up, removes her apron and leaves through the back door.

What happened in between those moments, between Martineau’s first and last shifts, is now the focus of an epic battle between one of the world’s most recognizable companies and one of North America’s most powerful labour unions.

Martineau was not just a barista; she was an organizer for the United Steelworkers, who have their sights set on unionizing Starbucks stores across the country. Martineau was good at it. She had already organized one café on Vancouver’s west side and had aspirations of doing it again.

So when she was fired weeks into her new job at a new café, the union cried foul. They complained to the province’s Labour Relations Board, arguing firing Martineau was part of a pattern of union busting at Starbucks, which has been accused of trying to quash labour organizing at its stores across North America.

Starbucks said firing Martineau had nothing to do with her union activism. The company says she was terminated because she swore in front of customers and staff, something Martineau denies. Starbucks has further accused Martineau and the union of waging a smear campaign against the company she said she loved. At one point, they had threatened to sue.

That led to a hearing at the BC Labour Relations Board replete with allegations of union busting and defamation. Lawyers spent days in a sparse room in downtown Vancouver, scouring Martineau’s shift schedule, her correspondence with managers and the footage of the day she was fired. When they ran out of time, the hearing moved online.

Her former co-workers, all baristas of a similar age, were summoned to testify about what they had overheard Martineau say as they all fixed Frappuccinos and crème brûlée lattes. Whatever friendship bonds had formed behind the counter were strained to the breaking point under cross-examination. More than once, the hearing paused when witnesses broke down in tears.

Looming over them, literally, was Jin Kim, Starbucks’ director of corporate counsel in the United States. Kim video-conferenced into almost every day of the hearing, his head broadcast on a TV mounted directly over the area where witnesses sat.

His presence underlined the quiet absurdity of the hearing, where one of the most prolific union organizing drives in recent history collided with the workplace politics of a little café in Vancouver, and where lawyers for Starbucks and the Steelworkers spent hours arguing over whether a 21-year-old Vancouver barista had said the word “fuck.”

The making of an organizer

It began when Martineau had a bad day at work. In 2022, Martineau was hired to work as a shift supervisor at a Starbucks on Dunbar Street, a tony, leafy neighbourhood near the University of British Columbia.

Martineau liked the Dunbar store and its little circle of chatty regulars. But she felt staff were overworked and underpaid.

“We were very understaffed and very busy,” said Martineau. “It was just an awful working environment. I usually didn’t take my breaks. I didn’t have time to. So I would just give my breaks to the baristas working with me.”

One day, she and a colleague talked about unionizing. Martineau ended up contacting the Steelworkers, who had already certified three other stores in B.C. She became an organizing committee of one, quietly persuading her colleagues to sign union cards. She didn’t see that as being incompatible with her love for Starbucks, but rather did it because of it. She reasoned a union could only make the company a better place to work.

In February 2023, the Dunbar store became the fourth in British Columbia to certify with United Steelworkers Local 2009. Media outlets including The Tyee covered it, often pointing to Martineau’s role in the organizing and noting her young age. Martineau said strangers phoned the store to congratulate them. She was on the store’s bargaining committee and was helping the Steelworkers in their quest to organize more Starbucks locations across the province.

But by September, the Dunbar store was gone. Starbucks shuttered the shop, saying its lease had expired. Martineau and her co-workers were offered jobs at different Starbucks locations across the Lower Mainland, and she landed at the location near the corner of 16th and MacDonald.

For Martineau, Starbucks had been home away from home. But here, she felt like a fish out of water. One barista described Martineau as “cold” and “standoffish.” Others who testified at the hearing said Martineau seemed distant and often complained. Martineau, for her part, said she struggled to befriend her new co-workers and felt like she was “invading space.” She harboured hopes things would change. “I thought they liked me. I thought that I was making friends with them and getting close with them,” she said.

Unbeknownst to her, some of her co-workers had begun to complain about Martineau to management.

Before the hearing began, Starbucks applied to put a last-minute publication ban on the names of all of its witnesses, including Karina and Yasmina. That application was rejected. But The Tyee has decided to refer to some witnesses by only their first name because they were compelled by their employer — and the law — to testify, and because of their young age.

One barista, Karina, had told the store’s manager, Yasmina, that it was difficult to work with Martineau. Karina recounted how Martineau had badmouthed the store and the location in front of customers.

And then something else came to light: Martineau’s co-workers claimed they had overheard her using swear words.

Few people would curse freely at their workplace. But Starbucks is its own world, with its own language and customs. Employees are not called employees; they are “partners.” Staff don’t have meetings; they have “connects.” And workers are not disciplined; they are “coached.”

Swearing is forbidden in this world. Starbucks follows what it calls the “third place” policy, pilfering a term coined by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg. Oldenburg theorized third places were spaces beyond the workplace and the home where people could freely meet, gather and feel welcome. Starbucks aspires to be such a space, which is why profanity is punished even more severely than in other customer-facing businesses. Erica Croke, a senior human resources staffer at Starbucks, testified that using profanity in the front of house was grounds for “separation” — Starbucks lingo for getting fired.

Yasmina sent a note about Martineau’s alleged use of profanity to Jon Chiu, the company’s district manager. Chiu knew Martineau. When the company learned about the union drive at the Dunbar location, Martineau testified that Chiu arrived and began to interrogate employees about where they stood on the union. Chiu, in his testimony, denied he had done that and said he was there that day because “if they had questions, I wanted to be there to support them.”

Chiu phoned Yasmina soon after, surprising her when she was on vacation in California. “At first, I’m like, the store is on fire,” Yasmina testified. Chiu instructed her to open a human resources case on Martineau and to get written statements from other employees.

The facade of a brown brick building with rows of paned windows and the Starbucks Coffee logo above the front entrance.
Starbucks headquarters in Seattle. The $140-billion corporation is facing at least 130 complaints from the US National Labor Relations Board alleging interference with union campaigns, which Starbucks denies. Photo by Elaine Thompson, the Associated Press.

Five of Martineau’s colleagues would submit statements about her. Three said they heard her swear while working. None said Martineau had used profanity to berate or insult a customer. Rather, they claimed she had peppered it into conversation for emphasis, usually when chatting with regular customers she knew from the Dunbar store.

Emily claimed she had heard Martineau say she had “fucked Starbucks over” to a customer at the counter after the company closed that store.

Another barista, Anna, said in her statement to Yasmina that Martineau used “constant profanity” with customers. Later, under cross-examination, Anna walked that statement back, saying she was not actually sure how many times Martineau had sworn. None of the baristas who complained about Martineau confronted her privately.

Croke told Yasmina she needed to speak to Martineau to get her side of the story. Yasmina and her assistant manager met Martineau at a table in the café’s front of house on Nov. 5.

Martineau said she was blindsided by the allegations, in part because she is loath to use profanity, ever. She describes herself as someone who is more likely to say “heck” than another four-letter word. Nursing school, Martineau said, had imparted a great deal of restraint when it came to foul language. “I’ve learned to just not respond. I can keep my cool in situations where emotions are high or people are upset. So I didn’t swear,” Martineau said.

Yasmina said it was routine for her to meet employees at this table, near a corner of the café but still in sight of customers and other co-workers. But Martineau said she felt flustered and embarrassed. “I thought I was going to get fired, so I was crying. I told her I don’t swear. I don’t swear at work,” Martineau said. She said as much to Yasmina but declined to provide a written statement. “I said I didn’t feel comfortable giving a statement if I don’t know what the actual allegations are,” Martineau said.

Yasmina doesn’t remember Martineau crying. But Martineau says she left the meeting in tears. Later that day, customers noticed her red eyes, she remembers. Soon after, Martineau sent a message to a WhatsApp group with other Steelworkers organizers, telling them what had happened. “I have never sworn at work ever and i’ve been with that company for 5 years and have a spotless record,” Martineau wrote, “and by the looks of it im going to be fired.”

Martineau was correct. Shortly after the meeting, Chiu told Yasmina that he and Croke were “aligned on separation” — Martineau was going to be fired.

On Nov. 8, Yasmina fired Martineau in the backroom. There was nothing Yasmina could tell her about why she had been fired, except to call a corporate phone number. At the hearing, Yasmina began weeping when she recalled that moment.

“I’ve never had to do anything like that,” Yasmina said. “I just put myself in that situation. If that happened to me, I would want to know why I’m leaving.”

Another manager who had watched as a witness allowed Martineau to exit through the back door, so she would not need to walk in front of co-workers and employees.

But the café at 16th and MacDonald had not seen the last of Martineau. Her first call was to the United Steelworkers, who prepared to strike back.

The corporation has firmly denied any allegations it violates labour laws to discourage unionization.

Ryan Copeland, one of Starbucks’ lawyers, says the company’s case is not about whether the investigation into Frédérique Martineau was fair, or even complete.

The Steelworkers’ argument is that firing Martineau was an unfair labour practice — the legal term, essentially, for union busting. The union says Starbucks fired Martineau because of her work as a union organizer, and to scare off other baristas who are thinking of signing union cards.

To prove that, Copeland argued, it's not enough to show the investigation was flawed. The union has to prove, Copeland said, that Starbucks fired Martineau because of her union activism.

“Starbucks doesn’t lose this case unless the union can establish anti-union animus,” Copeland said.

The company’s case relied strongly on the three baristas who had heard Martineau swear. But the written statements to Yasmina did not just mention foul language. Three of the five baristas who complained about Martineau had specifically mentioned that she was promoting the union while working.

Karina, the first employee to complain about Martineau, had originally not talked about profanity. But she had told Yasmina that Martineau “would constantly bring up the union” on the job. Dani, a worker who did not testify at the board, told Yasmina she was “uncomfortable” when Martineau talked about the union to customers, something documented in Yasmina’s notes. Anna said she, too, didn’t like it when Martineau discussed unionization. “It seemed like any minor inconvenience was a reason to unionize and that it was being pushed,” Anna told the board.

As it turned out, Martineau was pushing it. She was actively trying to organize the 16th and MacDonald Starbucks, she testified, and had brought it up to gauge Anna’s interest.

In fact, Anna knew Martineau was a union organizer before she even met her. Anna testified that after the Dunbar store unionized, Starbucks had given her a document about it, including Martineau’s name.

Kirby Smith, the lawyer representing the Steelworkers, noted the allegations of profanity did not surface until after employees had made separate complaints. She argued the alleged use of profanity was a pretext for the “wide-ranging” and “bizarre” investigation into Martineau, in which employees were invited to submit complaints of all kinds.

“The employer’s investigation into the allegations against her was hopelessly flawed, which we say shows the employer’s intent to dismiss a pro-union employee for spurious allegations of minor misconduct,” Smith said.

Starbucks’ representatives knew Martineau was a union organizer, too. Chiu, the district manager who decided to fire Martineau, confirmed he knew Martineau had led the Dunbar store union drive. He had also read the notes showing Martineau had been bringing up the union again at the new store. But he said it had no sway on his decision. “I didn’t disregard them, but I didn’t take them into account,” Chiu said under cross-examination.

The “primary factor” in the decision to fire Martineau, Chiu claimed, was the allegations of swearing. Croke said it was not unusual to fire a Starbucks worker for swearing. She said she had dealt with “dozens” of cases involving profanity.

But swearing at Starbucks didn’t always get you fired. Under cross-examination, three of the four Starbucks baristas who testified at the Labour Relations Board acknowledged they, too, had used foul language on the job. None of them received anything more than a verbal warning.

The comparison wasn’t perfect. The employees who admitted to swearing said they hadn’t done it in front of customers, as Martineau was alleged to have done. But Smith argued it highlighted a double standard. “These employees, who were not prominent union organizers, were not fired for vague allegations of profanity like Ms. Martineau,” Smith said.

A woman with light skin and short wavy red hair, wearing a brown hoodie over a light green shirt, stands outside a Starbucks.
Frédérique Martineau savouring victory after unionizing a Vancouver Starbucks. ‘I think only good can come from it in the long term,’ she said back then. Watch a Tyee short video made at the time featuring Martineau. Photo for The Tyee by Zak Vescera.

It is not the first time the Steelworkers have accused Starbucks of union busting, and far from the first time the coffee giant has clashed with the labour movement.

In the United States, Starbucks is facing at least 130 complaints from the country’s National Labor Relations Board alleging the company illegally interfered with union campaigns. Starbucks was recently ordered by that board to rehire seven baristas and union organizers it had fired, a decision the coffee company is appealing.

The corporation has firmly denied any allegations it violates labour laws to discourage unionization. But it also does not pretend to be neutral on unions. The company has repeatedly said it prefers to bargain directly with employees. A December report commissioned by the company found no evidence of an “anti-union playbook” but said “there are things the company can, and should, do to improve its stated commitment” to bargain fairly with workers.

The fight has crept up to Canada, too. The Steelworkers, who have led the charge to unionize Starbucks locations in the country, have repeatedly accused the company of cracking down on organizing drives and discouraging employees from unionizing.

Last year, Starbucks gave a pay bump to all of its employees in British Columbia, except for workers at its four unionized locations. The company later walked that back and paid out the money after the Steelworkers challenged it.

Recently, the Steelworkers brought another complaint against Starbucks about withholding tips at a location in Victoria; the board rejected the union’s argument.

The union has also filed another unfair labour practice complaint with the board — this one about the Dunbar store, which the union believes was shut down because it had unionized.

Firing Martineau, Smith said, was Starbucks’ way of sending a message — not just to Martineau’s colleagues, but to any Starbucks baristas thinking of joining the Steelworkers.

“That threat is, if you openly support the union and your manager finds out, you’ll be fired,” Smith said.

The aftermath

Months before the hearing began, Martineau’s case was already being tried in the court of public opinion.

She and the Steelworkers did a host of interviews with news publications including The Tyee, claiming the real reason for her termination was her union activism. She met reporters, including this one, outside Starbucks cafés for interviews and photos. Starbucks wasn’t happy. The company threatened to sue Martineau and the union for defamation. That lawsuit never materialized, and the Steelworkers never backed down.

But at the hearing, that media blitz became fodder for Starbucks’ next line of attack against Martineau: that she was a liar.

Copeland, the company’s lawyer, argued the articles contained a series of inaccuracies, half-truths and exaggerations that reflected poorly on Martineau’s credibility.

Martineau was often quoted, for example, as saying she had worked at Starbucks for five years, or thereabouts. Indeed, it had been four and a half years between her first and last shift at the company. But she had worked at Starbucks during two distinct periods in that time frame. If you were to add up her actual time working at the company, it was more like three years.

One article, in Global News, said Martineau had been demoted when she moved to the 16th and MacDonald location. But that wasn’t exactly true. Martineau had complained she was often working as a barista, even though she was a shift supervisor. And she never received keys to the store, which other supervisors had. But she was still paid at a shift supervisor rate and was never formally demoted.

There was also a story that was never repeated in news coverage. Two baristas, Anna and Emily, testified Martineau had once told them a story about a time Chiu had visited the Dunbar store. Martineau, the baristas said, had claimed she told Chiu to “get off the fucking floor” when he was being unhelpful. Chiu and Martineau both denied such an event took place, and Martineau denied telling such a story. But the question remained: If it never happened, why did two people say they remembered it?

Over an hours-long cross examination, Copeland grilled Martineau on each of those examples and more. At this point, the hearing had moved online, and Martineau was being cross-examined while she was sick at home. She sometimes coughed between questions and at one point briefly paused when her boyfriend triggered their smoke alarm by burning some bacon on the stove.

The crux of Copeland’s argument was that Martineau could not be trusted. Martineau had presented herself to the hearing as an earnest, shy person who struggled with social anxiety. Copeland argued that she was instead “prone to exaggeration and self-promotion,” and that her campaign in the media was meant to tarnish Starbucks’ reputation.

Martineau denied that. “I didn’t want to make Starbucks look bad. I wanted my job back. I was upset that I lost my job for something I didn’t do.”

She also pointed out that she had not written the articles Copeland cited, leaving open a question of whether she or the reporter had made the mistake, if one was made at all. No reporters were summoned during the hearing. Each article cited by Copeland also did include a boilerplate response by Starbucks, which did not address the specific allegations Martineau made. There is no indication the company has since contacted any of those news agencies to request a correction.

Martineau’s former co-workers read many of those articles. To them, the inconsistencies seemed like more than mistakes. “It made us wonder what else she had lied about,” Emily said. They also had consequences for workers at the store. On some occasions, Emily said, customers had come into the stores with questions about Martineau’s case and had called baristas “union busters.”

Yasmina, Martineau’s former manager, read many of the articles closely. None mentioned her by name, but they hurt her deeply. Yasmina presented herself as an attentive, professional manager who believes in treating employees equally. At two points during the hearing, she briefly used her phone to contact her replacement at the 16th and MacDonald store when they needed help. The suggestion that Yasmina had humiliated or disrespected an employee was horrifying to her. So was the media attention. At one point in the hearing, she broke into tears and asked for her name to not be used going forward. “If they were truthful, I wouldn’t care,” Yasmina said. She said she no longer trusted Martineau.

The emotional lows of the hearing and the power of the players involved sometimes obscured the actual stakes of the affair.

Starbucks, essentially, is seeking the status quo and the full retraction of the Steelworkers’ claims that they fired Martineau to suppress the union.

If the Steelworkers prevail, their main requests have been that union officials will have an hour to meet with the employees of 16th and MacDonald to explain what happened. They also want Martineau to get her job back.

But even if the Steelworkers win, Frédérique Martineau has lost something.

She faces the prospect of returning to work alongside colleagues she has watched testify against her in a judicial hearing. She knows, now, that some of the people who watched her cry during that meeting with Yasmina were the same people who had secretly complained about her.

Martineau had organized the Dunbar store, she said, for the same reason she wanted to work for Starbucks again after moving to Canada: she liked it, liked the other employees there and wanted to make it a better place to work. When Starbucks fought her, that was one thing. When her own co-workers betrayed her, it was another.

“I’m very shy and quiet but I’m not mean,” Martineau said through tears at the hearing.

“I’m not a bad person. And that’s how they make me feel.”  [Tyee]

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