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Arizona judge sides with Starbucks, finding employee was not fired for unionizing

PHOENIX — After hearing arguments and witness testimony Wednesday, a federal judge declined to reinstate three workers who accused Starbucks of firing them for trying to organize a union.

The National Labor Relations Board had requested the reinstatement of former Starbucks employees Laila Dalton, Alyssa Sanchez and Tyler Gillette; agency attorney Fernando Anzaldua says Starbucks wrongfully terminated them in response to their union activity.

Dalton made headlines following her termination in April, drawing national attention after she posted viral recordings of her encounters with Starbucks managers on Twitter.

According to the complaint, Dalton had a history of tardiness as illustrated in written warnings logged by her managers. David Kadela, an attorney representing Starbucks, said in addition to those warnings Starbucks initiated corrective action for offenses unrelated to unionization.

“What we have are the documented counseling with respect to [use of] earbuds and we have the final warning with respect to not wearing the facemask,” Kadela said.

Anzaldua claims the store previously accepted those violations, and the facemask violation was off the clock, making it frivolous.

U.S. District Judge John Tuchi agreed and said during the Wednesday hearing that those transgressions might be perceived as trivial and a form of reprisal by an administrative law judge. A jurist in that jurisdiction may adjudicate the case after his expedited injunctive or temporary restraining order hearing.

“Both sides have colorful arguments to support their respective positions, and which the ALJ [administrative law judge] might ultimately find was a [motivation],” he said, alluding to the NLRB having some traction on those claims alone.

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However, according to Kadela, Starbucks’ decision to fire Dalton stems from an incident where she placed her phone on a manager’s desk while it was in record mode.

Kadela claimed Dalton “bugged” the manager’s desk at a Scottsdale, Arizona, location to record managerial conversations that could be detrimental to the organization. Anzaldua denied that assertion, claiming Dalton habitually recorded her interactions with Starbucks for her protection.

“Dalton openly put her phone on the visible part of the manager’s desk,” he said. “And Starbucks was well aware by this time that Dalton had a practice of recording her interactions with managers at the store because of her fear of further discrimination.”

In Arizona, recording is permitted if one party is aware and present during the recording, but Dalton was not present while she left her phone on the desk.

During Dalton’s testimony, Kadela presented a surveillance video of Dalton placing the phone on the manager’s desk, face down, to charge. During a review of the video, two managers were seen grabbing Dalton’s phone and taking pictures of it.

Later during Dalton’s examination, the pictures were viewed as evidence, which showed timestamps of when the recording began. Kadela claimed that those timestamps were not indicative of a phone that was left on record from the beginning of her shift to the end, as Dalton claimed in her testimony. Instead, he argued the recordings were initiated with the purpose of recording the manager’s private conversations.

According to Tuchi, the evidence corroborated Starbucks’ assertions.

“This court finds that Starbucks has shown it would have fired Miss Dalton anyway, even in the absence of union activity,” he said in his findings.

Tuchi, ruling from the bench 30 minutes after returning to his chambers following the hearing, dismissed claims against Sanchez and Gillette, finding they both voluntarily left or took leaves of absence and perhaps had little future standing in another proceeding. Gillette was reinstated and promoted to barista trainer prior to the hearing and after informing Starbucks of her union membership.

The union associated with the workers, Starbucks Workers United, has been winning unionization elections across the country. With over 100 stores unionized in the past year, Starbucks has been open in its attempts to slow unionization across the country.

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The organization recently brought back its former CEO, Howard Shultz, in an attempt to stop union efforts.

“We can’t ignore what is happening in the country as it relates to companies throughout the country being assaulted, in many ways, by the threat of unionization,” Schultz said in a town hall in April.

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Jason White/Freelancer

Starbucks workers protest after the firing of Laila Dalton in Scottsdale, Ariz. April 5, 2022.