James Greene arrived about an hour early for his 5:30 p.m. Monday shift at the Penn Center East Starbucks store in Wilkins. A dozen fellow unionized baristas, union organizers and supporters joined him, and for a while everyone gathered around an outside table and wrote pro-union messages on sticky notes.

“You don’t own us … the customers and baristas built Starbucks!” read one. “We’re just getting started!! #Unionstrong,” read another.

This would be Greene’s first trip back into the store as a working barista since July 27 of last year when, according to a July 2023 ruling by a National Labor Relations Board judge, he was illegally fired. He’s the first of four illegally fired workers to return to their jobs as a result of that ruling.

Greene wore a black T-shirt showing his commitment to the union. It bore the Starbucks Workers United logo with the phrase “We are the union” printed below. On the back it read, “Partners? Prove it” and “We ARE Starbucks.”

As the beginning of his shift neared, the small crowd at the front of the store began a series of chants familiar to anyone who’s attended union rallies: “Get up, get down, Pittsburgh is a union town!” and “What do we want? A contract! When do we want it? Now!”

Everyone smacked at pesky spotted lanternflies that landed on their clothing and hair. The insects seemed to infest the place. At one point, Greene joked that Starbucks had the bugs trucked in to harass the union members.

“Starbucks is probably hiring the lanternflies — they couldn’t afford the Pinkertons,” he said, referring to the detective agency with a notorious reputation as company muscle in labor disputes.

Around 5:25, the union members and supporters began lining up at the Starbucks entrance in preparation for Greene’s official return. A customer pulled into a nearby parking space and, after exiting her vehicle, recognized Greene from earlier visits to the store. Upon learning of his return, she gave him a congratulatory hug.

Nearby stood Greene’s mother, Michelle Greene. This was a proud moment for her. She’s from Charleroi; her husband’s from Clairton. Both of their fathers worked as union employees in mills.

“We know what it’s like to be kids whose dads were on strike,” she said.

Greene said his parents’ experience is not unusual in the area surrounding the Wilkins store. Many residents have relatives who worked union jobs in either a steel mill or at Westinghouse — the former George Westinghouse Research Park in Churchill is 3 miles from the Starbucks store.

“There’s a lot more solidarity in this area,” Greene said. “There’s a sense of being a neighbor here. Pittsburgh is ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’ I think what’s why the movement is so effective here.”

At about 5:25, Greene put on his green Starbucks apron and walked past the line of supporters chanting “Jimmy! Jimmy! Jimmy!” and then entered the store. The supporters then attached all those hand-written Post-it notes on the door. Two managers immediately walked outside and began removing the notes.

A manager removes pro-union Post-it notes from the front door of the Penn Center East Starbucks store. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Minutes later, as the supporters chatted among themselves before departing, Greene opened the door, stuck his head out and said, “They’re trying to send me home.”

Tori Tambellini, a Starbucks worker illegally fired at the Market Square location, immediately entered the store to see what was going on. A few minutes later someone inside the store summoned Starbucks Workers United organizer Phil Halin.

Greene’s shirt, with its union message, was a problem. After five minutes or so, Halin exited the store. “They made him turn his shirt inside out,” he said.

So began Greene’s first day of work in more than a year.

Earlier, he said one of his goals at the store would be to explain to the newer, younger hires that they do have workplace rights, and that those rights can be exercised.

Greene can point to his own case as an example. The NLRB judge’s ruling stated the coffee company not only illegally fired four workers but also broke dozens of federal labor laws in its attempts to thwart baristas’ efforts to form unions in a number of Pittsburgh-area stores. The judge ordered Starbucks to rehire the four workers and make them “whole for any loss of earnings and other benefits” the workers suffered as a result of the discriminatory treatment they suffered at the hands of the company.

“The union will show up for you,” Greene said. “It’ll be nice to show this to the new hires firsthand, and to be behind the line and working with them.”

Other than that, he said, returning to work is a “mixed bag. On one hand, it’ll be nice to see the customers again. I’m from this neighborhood, so I know these people. I like interacting with my neighbors. But also, there’s having to deal with Starbucks management, which isn’t all that great.”

Union Starbucks workers and supporters gather at the coffee company’s Penn Center East store shortly before James Greene’s return to work. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.