Despite appearing upbeat, Kelli Prizner admitted to feeling a bit melancholy Wednesday morning as she tried to dissuade customers from entering the Starbucks store in Downtown Pittsburgh’s Market Square. She had worked there nearly four years before being fired in late December 2022 in what she and her union say was retaliation for her organizing work.
“I used to make all of the art at the store,” she said. That included designs on all the store’s chalkboard menus and signs, as well as holiday decorations. “I had a special apron that said ‘Store Artist.’ They really liked me, and the customers really liked me, too. And for Starbucks to just throw me away like I didn’t do anything for them for four years ….”
Her voice trailed off.
The Market Square store was one of 115 Starbucks locations nationwide targeted for Wednesday’s one-day strike — an action designed to draw attention to what Starbucks Workers United calls the coffee giant’s union-busting tactics.
Prizner hadn’t returned to the store since her firing but did so Wednesday to show support for union baristas.
“I feel bad because I care about the store,” she said. “This is my store. I miss it. It feels bad coming back, knowing I don’t work here. It’s sad.”
On the picket line, Prizner held a sign listing the names of Pittsburgh-area workers fired after taking part in union activities. Her name was among them.
“I want to be reinstated and fairly treated,” she said. “The way they got rid of me was so sketchy.”
Prizner was canned after a customer entered the store and began berating employees.
“I told that customer I would not serve them because they were yelling at me,” she said.
“They were screaming at the entire staff the second they walked in the door,” added Tori Tambellini, another former employee at the Market Square store, who was standing nearby and holding a tiny Australian shepherd named Echo, who served as a strike dog. Tambellini now works as an organizer for the union.
Prizner said managers told her she was fired for being “unprofessional,” but she and her union are convinced she was targeted because of her labor involvement. The union is challenging those firings and hopes to have an unfair labor practice hearing in the next few months.
At one point on Wednesday morning, eight police officers arrived at the Market Square store. They’d apparently been summoned by Starbucks managers, Tambellini said.
After entering the store and talking with managers, police exited and said to the strikers, “You guys know your rights, see you,” recalled one picketer.
For the next hour or so, dozens of approaching customers listened to the strikers and turned away from the store. Customers occasionally crossed the picket line; usually, they kept their heads down and walked past quickly.
At one point, a group of three young women approached the store, saw the picket line and stopped. Tambellini explained what was happening.
“We’re striking because Starbucks has been refusing to bargain with us for our contract,” Tambellini said.
“Wait, what’s your contract?” one of the young women asked.
“We want better safety measures, we want more trainings for the partners, more staffing so you guys can get your drinks faster and make it a better experience for everyone,” Tambellini said. “Better health insurance. Right now, you only get health insurance if you work at least 20 hours a week, but if your manager decides tomorrow they don’t like you, then they can cut your hours to 10 and then you don’t have health insurance.”
“Wow,” the young woman replied.
Prizner then directed the women to a few other nearby coffee shops, including a Starbucks at the Fairmont Hotel. That store is not owned by the Starbucks Corp., she said.
Tambellini estimated the Market Square store lost about three-quarters of its typical business. Shortly before the noon lunch hour, she could see activity inside. It seemed managers were winding down operations, she said.
Several minutes later, someone inside posted a sign on the door. “Our store is temporarily closed,” it read.
Union workers struck seven stores in the Pittsburgh region. In addition to the Market Square location, workers picketed stores on southbound McKnight Road, just north of Ross Park Mall; on Centre Avenue in Bloomfield; on Liberty Avenue and Baum Boulevard in Bloomfield; the Eastside store on Centre Avenue in Shadyside; on East Carson Street on the South Side; and at South Hills Village Mall.
At day’s end, union organizer Phil Halin declared the action a success. “They closed all the scabbed stores by 1 p.m.,” he said.
At the southbound McKnight Road store, managers closed the indoor cafe, forcing customers to use the drive-thru window. Halin and a few union workers stood in the parking lot at mid-morning and waved “strike” signs at motorists who pulled in. Some stopped to hear what the workers had to say. A few of those customers left; other customers kept their windows rolled up, didn’t acknowledge the striking workers and drove past to get coffee.
Among those holding signs was Abbie Levans. She awoke at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday to picket her store on East Carson Street but discovered it was closed for the day. The decision to close may have been spurred by the support unionized workers received during a strike in 2022, Levans speculated.
“The South Side community is pretty awesome,” Levans said. “They they found out we were on strike, they wouldn’t cross the picket line. That’s why the company didn’t try to scab out the store today.”
With that store closed, Levans drove to McKnight Road to help colleagues there. She and McKnight store employee Shirley Schoen, 67, stood near a collection of homemade signs reading “Howard is a coward” and “Union coffee is hot and sexy.” “Howard” is Howard Schultz, who stepped down as Starbucks CEO this week.
“I’m union blood,” said Schoen, known to her co-workers as Gigi. “It’s grandma in Italian,” she explained.
A retired employee for United Steelworkers whose husband worked for years at the Allegheny-Ludlum steel mill in Brackenridge, Schoen has experienced strikes in the past.
“Back in the day, my husband would be out for a year,” Schoen said.
She urged patience with the Starbucks unionization effort.
“This is such a grassroots movement,” she said. “It’s not a quick fix. It’s going to take a while to get the numbers we need to make real movement. I tell them to hang in there.”