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Starbucks says it closed its Plaza cafe for safety worries, but workers claim it's union busting

Seven people stand in front of Starbucks holding cardboard protest signs. In the center, one sign reads "Starbucks only became unsafe when we started a union."
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Employees at the recently closed Country Club Plaza location protested the company's decision to close the store. They say the decision was a union-busting tactic, not about safety, as the company claims.

Workers and customers were surprised Monday when the company announced the store would close an hour and a half ahead of schedule — permanently. Employees say they were given just 15 minutes notice.

When Steve Henson came to work Monday as a shift supervisor at the Country Club Plaza Starbucks, he had no idea he’d be out of a job before his shift was done.

A flyer signed by the store manager and the Starbucks district manager posted at 3:30 p.m. Monday thanked customers for “being part of the store community.”

Employees said they were told worries about safety led to the shuttering of the coffee shop. Those workers, who’d been in the midst of forming a union, said they learned of the closing only 15 minutes earlier. The company offered workers transfers to other Kansas City area Starbucks locations.

Henson said the closure came just a week after he’d heard a succession of 10 gunshots near the store.

After the gunshots, the store limited its hours to 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., closing two hours earlier than usual and during the weekend. Still, Henson said the permanent closing of the chain’s Plaza location caught workers by surprise.

“We feel confused because, after a history of incidents, nothing has been done,” Henson said. “Then once the shooting happens, we’re completely closed forever — no safety regulations, drills or training. There are so many things that we all feel could have been implemented. And they skipped all of that and just shut us down.”

Addy Wright, a shift supervisor at the location, said the store has dealt with many safety issues in recent years. She said she and other employees have been stalked, a manager was assaulted and some workers received murder threats.

So shutting down this week made her conclude the closure is about the upcoming results of the store vote on whether to form a collective bargaining unit. The workers voted about forming a union, but the vote ended in a tie in June and that outcome is under challenge. The store was the first in the Kansas City area to attempt to unionize.

“I definitely don't believe that their only reasoning was safety and security,” Wright said. “They’re afraid of the organizational power of the workers at this store. We were completely blindsided by the decision.”

Wright and McKenzie Mays, a barista at the cafe, said they see the closure as Starbucks retaliation for trying to unionize.

In June, the National Labor Relations Board filed a petition in federal court seeking a nationwide cease and desist order against the company after what it alleges were multiple illegal union-busting tactics, including closing stores that were actively unionizing. Earlier that month, the company announced it would close 16 stores for safety reasons.

Two men stand in front of a crowd of people holding cardboard signs
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Two men tried to enter the Plaza Starbucks before realizing it was closed. A protesting worker told them to go to Messenger Coffee Co. instead.

A spokesperson for the company said the closure is part of standard practice. It’s not union-busting, the spokesperson said, because the Plaza store doesn’t have a union yet.

“We regularly open and close stores as a standard part of our business operations,” the spokesperson said. “We apply the same focus on safety at unionized and non-union stores and are closing non-union stores where we are similarly challenged in providing a safe environment for our customer and partner experience."

The Chicago and Midwest Joint Board of Workers United said that, of the 19 stores closed in the past few months, 42% had organizing activity. The recent store closures represent only 0.2% of nearly 9,000 stores in the country. Starbucks closed a storefront in Seattle on the same day and the same time as the Plaza location. Workers at that Seattle store had also filed for union elections.

Mari Orrego, a union organizer with the CMJRB, said the recent closures show CEO Howard Shultz “following through on his threats” to close more stores. The CEO was quoted in a video saying the earlier closures were “just the beginning,” and that “there are going to be many more.”

Henson said management brought up union activities in a meeting about closing the store before any workers raised the issue.

“The district manager made a disclaimer, like, ‘Yeah, we’re not shutting you down just because you guys wanted to start a union,’” Henson said. “That put a bad taste in everyone’s mouth because now it feels like that's the exact reason, or part of the reason as well.”

Workers gathered outside the store on Tuesday to protest the store’s closing.

“We have no jobs to show up to this week,” Wright said, noting that many came to protest during their scheduled shift.

Mays said the group has received many words and honks in solidarity, but that much of the morning has been taken up by informing people that the store is closed.

“Even our customers don't know,” she said. “They've been coming up to us, like, ‘What's going on? I'm just wanting to get my coffee.’ We have a really big community here.”

The protesting employees directed customers to Messenger Coffee Co., a local coffee shop down the street.

Starbucks has been directing customers to three of its other Kansas City locations. It informed employees that they could transfer to other cafes.

But Wright said the location the company is urging workers to move to, less than a mile away at 41st and Main streets, is just as unsafe as the Plaza location.

“The only difference there is that store has won their union election so Starbucks has no power to close them (without negotiating with the union),” Wright said. “It's clear that it's not about safety when they're shipping us off to a store that is just as unsafe.”

Wright, Henson and Mays do not plan to continue to work for Starbucks. Wright said people have been coming up to the protesting employees offering them jobs and sharing in their heartbreak.

Henson is worried that if he did switch to an already fully-staffed location he wouldn’t get enough hours. He said the work will not be the same without the family that the staff created. He’d worked for Starbucks for nine years, including one year on the Plaza, and isn’t sure he wants to stay with the chain.

“We made coffee and breakfast for every employee on this Plaza,” Henson said. “It’s a real different environment now to have this abandoned space that everyone used to come and enjoy their time together.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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