OVERLAND PARK, KAN.â€”Maddie Doran worked at the Starbucks onÂ 75thÂ Street and InterstateÂ 35Â forÂ 10Â months,Â â€śnot only to pay the bills,â€ť she says, but because the companyâ€™s health insurance covers gender-affirming surgery. Many health plans exclude gender-affirming care, despite the fact that the medically necessary procedures can be lifesavingâ€”HarvardÂ researchÂ shows gender-affirming care can significantly reduce suicidal ideation, forÂ example.Â
And without Starbucksâ€™ health plan, Doranâ€™s facial feminization surgery would cost her $42,000.
But after Doran joined aÂ union campaign at the store this winter, the benefitÂ â€śwas waved over my headâ€ť as an anti-union scare tactic, she says, with one store manager privately telling her,Â â€śYouâ€™re here for the gender-affirming surgeries and Iâ€™m worried about you [losing that benefit and] becoming the minority [in contract negotiations], because ultimately the unionÂ decides.â€ť
An emailed statement from Starbucks toÂ In These TimesÂ said that the company wouldÂ â€śbargain in good faithâ€ť but could make noÂ â€śguarantees about any benefits,â€ť asserting thatÂ â€śeven if we were to offer aÂ certain benefit at the bargaining table, aÂ union could decide to exchange it for somethingÂ else.â€ťÂ
Losing aÂ benefit because of your union is extremely unlikely. As Katie Barrows, president of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, explains:Â â€śEmployees form unions to improve their workplaces. Additionally, when employees organize, they are the union, which means they negotiate and vote to approve their union contractâ€”union members are not going to vote for aÂ contract that leaves them worse off.â€¦ Iâ€™ve only seen union contracts drastically improve workersâ€™ pay, benefits and workingÂ conditions.â€ťÂ
Before Doran could get the surgery, however, she lost the health coverage anyway. She and two other outspoken union supporters, Michael Vestigo and Alydia Claypool, were fired in the same week. The store accused Doran of stealing money; she denies the charge and believes the three were targeted as retaliation.
As a union organizing wave has pulled in more than 300 Starbucks stores so far, workers have alleged egregious union-busting tactics by the company, including intimidation, retaliatory firings and scheduling reductions. Interim CEO Howard Schultz announced in April that a new benefits expansion will exclude union stores.
In at least one other store, as reported in Bloomberg and Them, managers specifically threatened that unionizing could jeopardize health benefits for trans employees. These alleged threats prompted Workers United to file unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), on behalf of employees at Doranâ€™s store and an Oklahoma City location.
Doran says her firing represents how gender-affirming healthcare can be used as a cudgel against unionization efforts. Retaliatory store closures or firings can especially hurt trans employees who rely on hard-to-find benefits.
Doran and her coworkers publicly announced their union campaign in January andÂ held aÂ walk out and strikeÂ in March to protest unfair working conditions. At one point, Doran says, managers tried to throw employees off the grounds of aÂ local hotel where theyâ€™d been called for aÂ mandatory anti-union meeting. When aÂ group of workers gathered outside after the meeting, Doran says, aÂ Starbucks manager told them,Â â€śYou all need to go,â€ť and then complained to the hotel front desk, who said the police had beenÂ called.
Doran, Vestigo and Claypool all made pro-union statements in the media, and all were terminated in April. The NLRB filed a complaint against Starbucks in May, alleging the firings were retaliatory, and Claypool has since been reinstated.
The union ballots came back aÂ week after the three were fired. The vote wasÂ 6â€“1Â in favor of aÂ union, adding Overland Park to the more thanÂ 200Â Starbucks locations that have unionized so far thisÂ year.
Transgender people are unemployed at a rate three times higher than the national average, according to a 2015 National Center for Transgender Equality study, and face a greater risk of underemployment and poverty than other workers. They are subject to higher rates of hiring bias, on-the job discrimination and firings, greater wage inequity and unequal access to healthcare.
While Starbucksâ€™Â 2018Â rollout of transgender health benefits was celebrated by LGBTQ advocates and media platforms, some workers at individual stores have reported trans-discriminatory practices. InÂ 2018, Maddie Wade, aÂ transgender employee,Â suedÂ Starbucks for discrimination, alleging her manager repeatedly misgendered her. In aÂ 2020Â survey by hospitality union Unite Here of workers at airport Starbucks stores, which are run by aÂ subcontractor, at least four employees reportedÂ discriminationÂ such asÂ â€śoffensive and transphobic comments from managers.â€ť AÂ 2020Â BuzzFeed story details three workers at different Starbucks stores being outed, hitting snags accessing gender-affirming benefits and beingÂ deadnamed.Â
â€śStarbucks will posture that they care about queer people,â€ť says Doran,Â â€śand they will posture that they care about any minority group, but the second you try to have aÂ democratic workplace or speak up for yourself or donâ€™t let them bully youâ€”suddenly youâ€™re public enemy number one, and they completely shut youÂ out.â€ťÂ
This blog is printed with permission.
About the Author: Author’s name is Zane McNeill. Zane is the founder of Roots DEI Consulting and Policy and is comanager of the labor rights group Rights for Animal Rights Advocates.