For the second time this week, unionized Starbucks baristas celebrated as one of their illegally fired colleagues returned to work. This time the worker was Tori Tambellini, the 24-year-old barista who’s been the most vocal and visible organizer in Starbucks Workers United’s effort to unionize the coffee company’s Pittsburgh-area stores.
At 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Tambellini finished her first shift since July 13, 2022, removed her green Starbucks apron and walked out of the Market Square store to a cheering crowd of about 30 colleagues and supporters who had gathered near the entrance.
“Tori! Tori! Tori!” the crowd chanted — an echo of the “Jimmy! Jimmy! Jimmy” chant delivered by supporters two days earlier as illegally fired worker James Greene returned to work at a Wilkins store.
A National Labor Relations Board judge ruled in July that Starbucks illegally fired four workers — Tambellini and Greene among them. The judge said the firings were part of Starbucks’ attempt to thwart the union’s organizing effort and ordered the company to re-hire the workers.
“It felt weird after a year, but I’m so happy to be back,” Tambellini said to those who had come to support her. “There’s nothing more meaningful to me than being on the shop floor with my co-workers, fighting for the contract I know we deserve.”
Supporters clustered around the store included representatives of the United Steelworkers, United Food and Commercial Workers, and Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh.
After leading the crowd in the union barista chant of “We pull the shots, we call the shots” and conducting a few TV interviews, Tambellini took a moment to reflect on her first day back at work.
“Last night I was feeling nervous about it,” she said. “But as soon as I walked in, I realized the company is more scared of me than I am of them. They wouldn’t have gone to the lengths they did to get rid of me if they weren’t scared of me. That felt empowering and meaningful.”
Starbucks workers were joined in their celebration by June Wearden, a barista employed by the Pittsburgh coffee company La Prima Espresso. La Prima workers won a union vote in December. They’re represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776.
“It’s an inspiration to see what Starbucks workers have done,” Wearden said during a short speech. “You guys were going up against this giant of the coffee industry, and you were coming out on top.”
La Prima workers enjoyed a victory of their own last week — they ratified their first contract, which includes a 13% pay raise, paid bereavement and parental leave, more and longer breaks, and an end to arbitrary firings, Wearden said.
One key to the La Prima workers’ success was unity among the workers.
“When management didn’t do anything about chauvinistic customers, our cis, our straight, our male co-workers could have said, ‘That’s not my problem, I’m not getting harassed.’ But they didn’t say that,” Wearden said. “They stood with us. We were unified, and we were stronger for it. We talked to each other, listened to each other’s concerns.”
La Prima workers also knew the process would be, at times, frustrating and difficult.
“We understood that we had to struggle,” Wearden said. “We understood that we weren’t guaranteed a victory, that we were risking something, that once we did start to organize, that even though it’s illegal for the bosses to fire you, they’ll still do it anyway if they think they can get away with it.
“But we understood that the situation as it was was not tenable. It wasn’t tenable that we were not being paid the full value of our labor. It wasn’t tenable that the company could at any moment transfer us to a different location. It wasn’t tenable we could be fired without cause.”
Tambellini knows the task of forming a union can be daunting, especially for those who have little experience in activism or organized labor and who are going up against a large corporation with seemingly unlimited amounts of power and resources.
“Organizing your store can be really scary because Starbucks can be so relentless,” she said. “The message I want to send to people, though, is this — you shouldn’t be scared. I got fired, I got the worst-case scenario, and I’m still here. I’m still fighting.”