Hannah Whitbeck was shocked when she was fired from her position as shift manager at an Ann Arbor Starbucks. Three years and no prior write-ups, she didn’t understand why she was being terminated from a job she loved. Earlier that day she even brought in cookies for the staff to boost morale the Monday after a busy weekend.

“I gave my everything to the store and it just felt like it was just ripped out of my hands over nothing,” she said.

The timing of the termination — just weeks after a union election hearing Whitbeck organized — felt suspicious.

The formal reason for her termination was in response to a disagreement with another shift supervisor almost two months earlier.

Whitbeck’s version of events was that she told the fellow supervisor to take his lunch before her shift ended to adhere to store policy that one supervisor must be in store at all times. Whitbeck said the supervisor refused and took his break as her shift ended and therefore left her to take the blame when a barista manned the store alone.

Eight weeks after her termination Whitbeck’s store went on to win its election and legitimatized the union she helped build.

“I don’t know if it’s something I’m going to get to be a part of, which makes me kind of sad,” she said. “Kind of feels like the end of an era.”

Related: Four Ann Arbor Starbucks stores vote to unionize

Spanning from Flint to Grand Rapids, nine out of 11 stores that petitioned for a union have won. A 12th store in the Ann Arbor area will tally their votes later this month.

Across the state Whitbeck’s firing added to fuel to the fire rather than extinguishing it.

“Instead of like turning us away from it, that has burned the fire underneath us,” said Emily Grasel, shift supervisor in East Lansing.

Whitbeck’s story has turned into a case of alleged union busting. The National Labor Relations Board has added it to the docket of complaints they are taking on against the coffee giant.

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In response to MLive’s request for comment on Whitbeck’s termination Starbucks sent the following statements:

“Hannah is no longer with Starbucks for safety and security policy violation. A partner’s interest in a union does not exempt them from the standards we have always held. We will continue enforcing our policies consistently for all partners.”

“We have fully honored the process laid out by the NLRB and have encouraged our partners to exercise their right to vote in the election to have their voice heard. Any allegations of union busting are false.”

Union busting allegations have followed Starbucks from state to state as more than 135 stores have unionized in less than a year. Allegations of misleading posters, one-on-one “listening sessions” with managers and unwarranted firings have been seen as scare tactics as the company publicly asks for unity among workers rather than negotiations.

Related: Four more Starbucks unionize in Lansing, Flint

Workers have listed both hazard pay and better safety protocols as coronavirus-era grievances. For Grasel, physical safety has become a concern at work as well.

This spring a customer swung at Grasel across the counter, only stopped by a sneeze-guard. This wasn’t the first instance of a hostile work environment. She recounted instances of customers verbally abusing staff, brandishing weapons and threatening violence.

Incident reports asking for customers to be banned have gone unchecked and regular customers have become repeat offenders, Grasel said. She believes the reports sit in their district manager’s inbox saying “the response was nonexistent.”

“I was hired to manage the floor and to make coffee,” Grasel said. “I was not hired to protect my baristas and all the customers from somebody with a weapon.”

Starbucks responded to MLive’s request for comment on safety complaints with the following statement:

“The personal safety and security of our partners is of utmost importance to us. We are always working and listening to our partners on ways we can better support them, especially when it comes to issues of safety. If our partners are ever in a position where they don’t feel safe, they are empowered to remove themselves from the situation and alert their manager.”

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Related: Grand Rapids Starbucks workers first to unionize in Michigan

Starbucks cutting hours during the unionization effort struck a cord with workers who rely on a set number of hours. The company responded saying it was “in the process of managing labor forecasts in the near-term.”

Struggling to make rent and pay for groceries made staffers in Ann Arbor feel defenseless against corporate-level decisions, barista Elizabeth Blackwell said.

“I think that in itself radicalized a lot of people because they were realizing we are powerless in this relationship with Starbucks, with Howard Schultz,” she said. “We have no control here. They can just cut our hours like that, they can take away our means to live.”

The Great Resignation has put an added emphasis on service workers looking for jobs elsewhere. Blackwell said she is asked frequently why she doesn’t just quit instead.

“I need to make money to live and this is in many ways the job I enjoy,” she said “I like making coffee. I love my coworkers. It wasn’t like I wanted to shop around necessarily for the very best I could get. I wanted to make this job worth having.”

Related: Facing a pandemic, more Michigan workers turned to unions

The fight for higher wages and better benefits is an industry wide issue, Ruby Barron said.

“You’re not going to get much better treatment anywhere else so either we can kind of start building like a class wide movement, or we can throw in the towel and just kind of accept that,” they said. “I think people are kind of done with lying down.”

The union membership rate of public-sector workers continued to be more than five times higher than the rate of private-sector workers in 2021 at a rate of 33.9% of all public-sector workers, according to annual BLS data.

The pandemic has been a catalyst for unions organizing. In Michigan, 15.2% of wage and salary workers were union members in 2020, up from 13.6% in 2019. However, 2021 data shows that number declining back to 13.3%.

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Union strikes at John Deere, Frito Lay and Michigan’s own Kellogg’s gained national traction and grabbed the attention of new, younger audience.

Gallup’s most recent poll capturing public approval of unions in August 2021 found 68% approved unions – the highest point since 1965.

Approval was particularly high among adults 18-34 at 77% approval.

Young progressives have always been the ideal labor market for Starbucks. Clinton Township barista Dylan Skinner finds this a bit ironic after getting repeated messaging from the company to not unionize.

“We like the mission and values, but what we’re trying to do is make them actually uphold and adhere to those mission values that they so lovingly claim as theirs,” he said.

In the six months since Skinner started campaigning for union representation he’s grown even more interested in the labor movement. He now keeps tabs on union filings at other companies like Amazon, Apple and most recently Trader Joe’s.

“I don’t want to be someone that’s like ‘I’m involved for my thing. I got what I wanted. I’m done,’” Skinner said. “I want to keep tabs to make sure everyone is prospering out of this. I want to make sure everyone’s coming out on top.”

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