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Starbucks Ups Stakes in War of Words with Union

The corporation is threatening a defamation lawsuit, but the Steelworkers stand firm.

Zak Vescera 7 Dec 2023The Tyee

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

Starbucks is threatening to sue a Vancouver barista who says she was fired for trying to unionize the company’s stores.

The coffee giant accuses Frédérique Martineau, 21, and the United Steelworkers union of defaming the company by claiming Martineau was terminated as reprisal for her role in unionizing a now-closed store on Vancouver’s west side.

In a Nov. 24 letter obtained by The Tyee, a lawyer representing Starbucks wrote that Martineau and the union had misrepresented the real reasons for her dismissal.

It cites a Steelworkers media release that said Martineau was “fired due to her outspoken support for unionization among Starbucks workers, according to Starbucks management.”

The corporation says the claim is defamatory and false. “Ms. Martineau was not fired for her outspoken support of the union,” wrote a lawyer representing the company in a Nov. 24 letter to USW and Martineau. “She was terminated due to her frequent use of profanity in the workplace and disparaging remarks about the employer and the district manager.”

The company disputes other claims made by Martineau about her work schedule and the circumstances of her firing.

It demanded Martineau and the Steelworkers retract statements made in both a union press release and comments to media outlets, which would include The Tyee, the Vancouver Sun, Global News and the Daily Hive.

The letter also points to the potential damages, citing a 2022 award of $500,000 to a work camp operator over defamatory comments made by Unite Here Local 40.

Scott Lunny, USW District 3 director, said he would refuse to retract the comments.

“I think it’s just bullying,” Lunny said in an interview. “They’re trying to bully Frédérique and the union into keeping quiet about a really unfortunate and really alarming thing.”

Starbucks confirmed the union responded to its letter on Dec. 1, refusing to comply with its demands. A spokesperson said no litigation had been filed as of Dec. 5. None of the union or company claims have been tested in court.

The conflict marks yet another escalation in a years-long labour beef between Starbucks and the Steelworkers, who hope to organize the coffee company’s Canadian stores.

Martineau, a longtime Starbucks shift supervisor who is studying to become a forensic nurse, led a successful effort to unionize her workplace in Vancouver’s Dunbar neighbourhood earlier this year.

Starbucks later closed that location, saying its lease had expired, and Martineau was transferred to a different Starbucks location on Macdonald Street. She was fired from her job there in early November.

At the time, Martineau told The Tyee that managers said she had been fired for her use of profanity. Martineau said she didn’t use profanity in the workplace.

She and Lunny said they believed the real reason for her termination was her involvement in the union.

Starbucks has been under scrutiny in the United States and Canada for its relationship with labour organizers, who have accused the coffee giant of fighting efforts to unionize its locations.

“I don’t think they ever wanted me. I think they knew what they were going to do,” Martineau said in an interview last month. She declined to comment further for this story.

A woman with reddish hair and two nose rings, wearing a black shirt and jacket, gazes at the camera. She is standing outside a Starbucks outlet, with the logo visible beside her.
Frédérique Martineau’s firing sparked a union complaint to the Labour Relations Board. Now Starbucks is challenging her claims. Photo for The Tyee by Zak Vescera.

Martineau and Lunny spoke to multiple media outlets after her termination, urging Starbucks to hire her back and accusing the company of union busting.

In a statement, a Starbucks spokesperson denied the company would terminate a partner — the Starbucks term for employees — for lawful union activity. They said the company “respects the right of our partners to make their voices heard when it comes to union issues.”

“However, a partner’s involvement in union activity does not exempt them from the obligation to adhere to company policies or permit them to engage in conduct that violates the standards that apply to all partners,” the statement said.

The Tyee asked Starbucks for specifics on those allegations but was told the company could not comment because of possible litigation.

Ryan Copeland, the lawyer representing Starbucks, alleged in his letter that Martineau had misrepresented the number of shifts she was scheduled for at the Macdonald store.

Martineau was quoted in the Vancouver Sun as saying some employees were scheduled for 19 hours a week to keep them below the 20-hour threshold that made them eligible for benefits. Copeland wrote that was not true.

“These and other recent statements of Ms. Martineau and the USW and its representatives are clearly intended to lower the reputation of Starbucks in the eyes of the public, and are defamatory,” Copeland wrote.

Lunny said the Steelworkers see the letter as an empty threat. He said Martineau “is not making this up” and that the information she gave to the media was accurate.

“I don’t think there’s any merit to it. If you read through that letter, really, they’re picking out things they don’t agree with,” Lunny said.

The Steelworkers have been embroiled in a number of labour disputes with Starbucks since it unionized one of its stores in Victoria in 2020.

USW has accused Starbucks of unfairly holding back tips from workers at that store. It also reached a deal with the company earlier this year after it gave a raise to all its B.C. employees except for unionized members.

The union has also filed another unfair labour practice complaint to the province’s labour board that deals, in part, with Martineau’s termination.

Lunny said he believes the company’s response to Martineau’s comments is to discourage unionization, but that it may have the opposite effect by illustrating workers need a union.

“It puts the lie to their position that there’s ‘nothing to see here’ when they’re threatening a 21-year-old nursing student with a lawsuit,” Lunny said.  [Tyee]

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