In the summer of 2017, Jimmy Greene drove westbound on one of those long stretches of Route 22 where only a few lighted road signs illuminate the darkness. It was around 4 a.m. Greene had been on the road for hours, listening to music on Spotify as he returned to Pittsburgh from a wedding in Williamsport.
Somewhere along the four-lane road, in a rural area in either Indiana or Westmoreland county, he pulled to a stop at a red light. On the cross street he saw a small gas station with only a few pumps. Greene, a Black man who identifies as queer, recognized it as a place he’d never stop. He simply wouldn’t feel comfortable or safe there.
At that moment, a pickup truck rolled to a stop beside him. Greene looked over. Two white men inside the truck were yelling and gesturing at him. Anger twisted the men’s faces.
Greene knew this was trouble.
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During his nearly five years as a Starbucks barista, Greene, 36, sometimes received looks and heard comments from customers signaling that he was one of the “others” — those who don’t belong to what they consider the normal world.
He wondered what would happen if things got ugly. Would the company support him?
Greene recalls a time when a female customer made homophobic remarks to one of his co-workers. Local management banned the customer from the store, but then higher management stepped in and required the local boss to apologize to the customer and extend an invitation to return.
“They threw the barista under the bus,” Greene said.
Greene last worked at a Wilkins store where baristas voted in April to unionize. He and his colleagues are part of a nationwide resurgence in union activity and interest — a 2021 Gallup poll showed that 68% of Americans approve of unions. Starbucks workers are getting a lot of attention for their efforts, and they’ve racked up an impressive number of wins. More than 200 stores nationwide are now unionized.
Greene spoke at a rally on Friday at the store on Downtown’s Market Square.
He took part in bargaining sessions that followed his union’s victory and was subsequently fired over a scheduling dispute. He said he was asked to work a schedule similar to the one he’d worked before experiencing health issues that caused him to take a leave of absence.
“The amount I was working is what played a role in making me take medical leave,” he said. “It felt like they were trying to make me quit. I explicitly said I wasn’t quitting.”
Union organizers say dismissals over scheduling are part of a company strategy designed to stymie their efforts. Starbucks has denied charges of union-busting.
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At the stoplight on Route 22, Greene tried to ignore the men directing their anger at him. He turned his head, looked straight ahead and waited for the light to turn green. When it did, Greene pulled away from the intersection, hoping the incident would end.
The driver of the pickup truck accelerated and tried to run his much smaller Honda Fit off the road. Greene pushed his gas pedal to the floor.
“It was fight or flight, and I just went into flight mode,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking or processing, I was just going.”
He didn’t slow down until he reached the safety of Monroeville.
Greene later told his friends about the incident. “Oh, that’s so terrible,” they said. But then the conversation pivoted to other subjects. It seemed they didn’t perceive the threat as serious, or perhaps they simply considered it an odd and isolated event. “There was a lack of urgency in their responses,” Greene said.
He’s often felt as though he lived in a universe separate from everyone else. He’d hear phrases like “parental rights” and “open borders” and “low-income housing” and recognize the whispered messages meant to dehumanize entire populations, to inflame others to hate.
He knew these words could eventually lead to violence. Why was no one else alarmed? Greene wondered if perhaps he was overly sensitive. “Am I crazy?” he asked.
When the killing in 2016 of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and nine African American worshippers at a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015, were described as “mass shootings,” he thought, no, they’re terrorist attacks. People simply weren’t taking seriously the dangers of the nation’s hate-fueled, far-right movement and the language it utilized to dehumanize others.
He saw that attitude change after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol. More people suddenly began taking the threat of far-right extremism seriously. “Only now do I feel people are properly responding to hatred,” he said.
And he’s looking for allies, especially among those who don’t have to deal with menacing stares and comments, and with situations like the one he experienced on Route 22.
“People without that burden on their minds should be swooping in now to help out” he said, “those who don’t have to deal with whether it’s safe to go to a drag show, or to Shabbat.”
He’s found support and hope among those involved in the effort to organize Starbucks workers. It’s a young and diverse crowd, and it’s taking on issues important to its members.
“Everyone fired in the Pittsburgh area is queer,” he said. “Our labor trouble is also a gender equality issue. They’re all tied together.”
“It gives me a sense that there are solutions to problems even outside of Starbucks,” he added. “A union is a counter to the rightward move of the country, the stuff I’ve experienced. … It’s less of a burden on me. I’m defended. I have comrades now.”
Andi Boone had just started a 10-minute break from her job at a Starbucks in Cranberry in June 2020 when she received a life-changing text message. Boone learned her German shepherd Allie-bell had just given birth to a litter of pups. The news came as a shock — she was unaware of the pregnancy.
“What on earth?” she thought. “I’m a grandma.”
A friend and longtime customer named Jess had just walked out of the store, so Boone ran outside to tell her the news. Jess had been trying to acquire a service dog for her daughter, who struggles with autism, but the cost was too high. “I’d love to have a dog like that for my daughter,” Jess said.
A few days later, Jess and her daughter visited Boone and met the pups. After several more visits, they selected a puppy and began the process of training it as a service dog.
“I feel like I’ve made some really great connections with people,” Boone said. “I see them every day, sometimes multiple times a day. I get to know their lives. I’m the first person they tell their good news to.”
Boone, 34, is now a shift supervisor at the Starbucks on southbound McKnight Road in Ross. She and several co-workers went on strike Oct. 24. Managers had been tipped off to the action and closed the store for the day, so Boone and her co-workers stood in front of the darkened store holding signs reading “This is the last straw” and “Change is brewing.”
A key issue at the McKnight store is inadequate staffing, Boone said.
“On Saturday it was bonkers,” she said recently. “We were down five people. There were only two of us.”
She and a co-worker were so busy filling orders they were unable to complete the cleaning and restocking chores they normally attend to during their shifts. That work had to be done after they’d accounted for the day’s money.
“We closed at seven o’clock. At 11:15, we were still there,” Boone said. “We just said we’re going to call it. We stopped. We’d been there all night.”
The October strike was a way of letting the company know such treatment of its workers is unacceptable, she said.
“They might think that we’re weak and we don’t really have any power, but we’re here, and we’re united,” Boone said. “If we just let them exploit us, nothing’s going to change. So it’s just showing them that we’re not afraid to rock the boat a little bit to try to get what we want.”
Brett Taborelli, a 29-year-old Starbucks worker fired after the organizing campaign in Wilkins, joined Boone and her co-workers on the McKnight Road picket line. He worked for the company for eight years before being terminated. Starbucks cited issues with scheduling.
Like Boone, Taborelli treasured those who came to buy coffee.
“We love our customers to an extent that’s crazy,” he said. “I don’t have a huge family presence, being that I’m queer. I struggled growing up with my family.”
His job gave him opportunities to feel welcomed in the families of others. Customers invited him to Christmas holidays, Thanksgiving dinners and even funerals.
“I started here because, as a queer person, it’s really hard to find a safe environment to work in,” and Starbucks felt like a safe place, Taborelli said. “When you go into a Starbucks, you see so many different demographics of people. And that was so inviting for me.”
“We see ourselves in the people we work with. We hold that really close and dear. That sense of creating a community within a community is really important to us, because a lot of us didn’t have that,” he continued. “And so when we see it, and we feel it, when we hold it so dear, and we try to bring things up like safety concerns and the company refuses to acknowledge it, that’s hurtful.”