Protestor holding signs in front of Starbucks
Former workers of the Plaza Starbucks held a rally outside of the location on Aug. 24, just two days after their store was shut down. (Mili Mansaray/ The Beacon)

Aug. 22 was supposed to be just another regular day for the employees of the Starbucks on Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, one of the most popular in the region. 

As baristas were making drinks and taking orders, corporate managers came in around 3 p.m. and started ushering out customers and turning off mobile orders. Someone from district management then placed a note on the door around 3:15, stating that at 3:30, the location would close for good. 

Kaity Barnes, a barista at the location for almost a year, was there that day. She was in utter disbelief to learn that within a matter of minutes, she would lose her job. After imploring store management for more information, district management called staff to a meeting where employees learned over a Zoom call that their store was closed due to safety concerns. 

“We asked questions but we never got any clear answers,” she said. “We screamed at them, I was bawling, it was a mess. It was handled so incredibly poorly.”

While the Starbucks was a popular destination for visitors to the Plaza,  the area is no stranger to crime. Kansas City police told FOX4 that officers heard gunshots near 47th and Wyandotte streets around 7 p.m. on Aug. 14. Following the incident, the store began to close four hours earlier, Barnes said. 

Former employees, on the other hand, believe the closure was a result of union-busting tactics amid their pursuit to organize.

Woman stands in front of Starbucks with a sign that reads "Starbucks only became unsafe when we started a union!!"
Kaity Barnes was one of three baristas on shift the day higher management came in and shut down the store. She attended the Aug. 24 rally in the Plaza to protest this closing. (Mili Mansaray/ The Beacon)

This was one of the first Starbucks locations to file for unionization in Missouri, joining nearly 200 across the nation. According to data from Starbucks Workers United, 171 Starbucks stores in 30 states have won union elections; 27 stores have lost. The results of the election at the Plaza store were inconclusive, as Starbucks Corp. contested their casted votes. 

In Kansas, three stores have unionized, the latest being in Wichita at the Rock and Central location, winning their election in a 9-6 vote on Aug. 16. The Wichita employees organized their group under the Central and Rock Partners Union. Workers at this location voted to unionize the day after Starbucks Corp. asked the National Labor Relations Board to halt all union votes at its stores. The Wichita location, which closed on Aug. 8 for a remodel, is set to reopen Thursday.

Starbucks’ resistance to unions has been well documented, including when interim CEO Howard Schultz warned employees in Buffalo, New York — where the first movement organized — of the “threat of unionization.”

Former employees had no warning of closing 

On Aug. 24, workers held their second and final rally outside of the empty location to protest the closing of their store.

The safety explanation didn’t make sense to former employees. 

“They said it was for security reasons, based off of all the incidents that have been happening on the Plaza recently. But, like, we’ve been having that problem,” said Dean Chavez, a shift supervisor at the location. “I’ve been here for three years, we’ve been having that problem regularly.”

According to a study by The Kansas City Star, seven police calls were made from the Starbucks on the Country Club Plaza in the three months before the store was closed. Reasons for the calls varied from armed assault to a recovered stolen vehicle. None of the calls resulted in officers creating a police report, according to the Kansas City Police Department.

No calls or reports of criminal offenses were taken at the Starbucks between May 22 and Aug. 22, according to the study. Yet, a map created by the KCPD shows that there have been numerous reports of thefts, assaults and property damage around the Plaza. 

In an email to The Beacon regarding crime in the location, Plaza Management said:

“Safety and security is the top priority at the Plaza. We deploy many tactics, both seen and unseen, to create a safe environment, including working hand-in-hand with the KCPD who police the city streets, using off-duty policemen on the Plaza security team, taking part in crisis exercises with local authorities, working with Homeland Security and promoting the ‘See Something Say Something’ campaign with Plaza and tenant employees.”

Man stands in front of Starbucks with a sign that reads "Starbucks puts profit over people!!"
Dean Chavez, who worked at the Plaza Starbucks for three years as a shift supervisor before his coworkers notified him that their store was closing, attended the Aug. 24 rally to protest what he believes are union busting tactics. (Mili Mansaray/The Beacon)

The Beacon reached out to Starbucks Corp. for a comment on the closing of the popular location.

“We regularly open and close stores as a standard part of our business operations. We apply the same focus on safety at unionized and non-union stores and are closing non-union stores where we are similarly challenged in providing a safe environment for our customer and partner experience,” said a spokesperson for the company in an email to The Beacon. 

In the past few months, Starbucks has closed 19 stores in Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, Washington, D.C, and other cities, with 42% of the closed stores having union activity, according to a press release released by the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of Workers United. The Plaza store was the second most popular Starbucks in the district, according to the release.  

In July, a video of interim CEO Schultz addressing an internal meeting was posted to Twitter, where he said, “We are beginning to close stores that are not unprofitable” because of safety issues. “This is just the beginning. There are going to be many more.” 

According to Schultz, the company conducted over 60 meetings with stores across the country. 

In all of those sessions it has shocked me that one of the primary concerns that our retail partners have is their own personal safety.” The CEO spoke of the impact of homelessness on store safety, calling out elected officials in the cities where the stores are closing. Schultz said the local issues of homelessness and mental illness were impacting employee safety.

In 2018, Starbucks announced its restrooms would be open to anyone, regardless of whether they made a purchase in the store. Schultz has since announced it will be rethinking this policy. 

Not feeling heard about safety concerns is one of the common themes that have inspired workers to unionize at various stores throughout the region. At Barnes’ store, she said workers had an incident reporting forum, where employees have reported incidents ranging from people sleeping in the lobby to stalking and sexual harassment. 

“Corporate didn’t do anything. Nobody did anything about it,” she said. 

“We have been trying to advocate for ourselves and they haven’t done anything until that Monday, when they came in and shut us down.”

As one of the three baristas on shift who learned of the closing, Barnes confronted corporate management over the Zoom call. 

“You guys didn’t talk to us. You didn’t invite us to the table. You just made this decision. And you guys won’t tell us who made the decision. We don’t get to talk to anybody about it. You just came in and uprooted our entire lives.”

Starbucks did not provide comment on why they chose to close stores now instead of at any other time. When asked about their decision to communicate the closure on the day of the event, the corporation did not comment. 

In response to the closing of a staple of the Country Club Plaza community, Plaza Management.stated: 

“Tenant departures enable us to bring in exciting new retailers or rethink the usage of the space. We will naturally share news of new tenants in due course.”

The retail center is owned by Taubman Centers and Macerich

Neither Starbucks nor the Plaza provided comment on whether talks were held between the two companies before the decision was made to shut down the store.

Closing hurts employees, customers

When their store was shut down, workers on shift called or texted their co-workers to let them know. 

Chavez was one of many employees who drove up to the Plaza after being notified that he lost his job. He said management has since told them they can transfer to surrounding stores, such as the location on 41st and Main. 

“But that’s like less than a mile away,” Chavez said. “And it’s in the same area as this area, so I don’t see how better that would be” in terms of concerns about safety. 

While many of his co-workers do not plan to stay with the corporation, Chavez will be transferring to the 39th Street location to keep up with his goal of moving out of his family home by the end of this year. 

“I was really hoping on this job for going into the next chapter of my life and I know a lot of people here feel the same way about moving as well and setting ourselves up for success,” he said. “It’s just really taken us back a little bit.”

Barnes, the shift supervisor, said she is still waiting on a promised raise.

“We were supposed to get a raise at the beginning of this month. And they denied it to us. Fifteen days afterwards, 15 days after they told us we had the raise, they told us we ended up not getting a raise,” she said. “And then they told us that we would get the raise on the 29th of this month. But they’ve been promising us the raise for how long and we still haven’t got it.”

Chavez said he and other workers will continue to work with the union. 

“We didn’t do anything wrong. We were fighting for our rights and they just tried to take it away,” he said. “And we don’t want that to happen to any other store or any other people.”

Like Chavez, Barnes has also been talking with management about transferring to another location, although she admits the hardest part about the transfer will be leaving the family she created in her store. 

“This is my community. It’s just hard to go to another store, I live right across the street,” she said. “This is my home.” 

In addition to her fellow workers, people who frequented the location for drinks, food or conversation with their favorite baristas are also impacted by the closing. Many people who needed free cups of water to get them through the heat may no longer have access to that, according to Barnes. 

Woman stands in front of Starbucks with a sign that reads "Shop Starbucks union open this Starbucks"
Sharon Aluqdah is a customer of Starbucks who attended the Aug. 24 rally in solidarity with workers. She is now questioning if she will continue to shop with the chain. (Mili Mansaray/ The Beacon)

“The sad thing about it is they’re taking Starbucks away from the people on the Plaza,” said Sharon Aluqdah, a customer of the location who attended the protest in solidarity with workers. “It’s really about their profit over their employees.”

A member of the workers’ rights group Jobs with Justice, Aluqdah said she’s rethinking her patronage of the store. 

“It makes me wonder if I’m going to continue to be a Starbucks customer,” she said. “Maybe I’ll start going to another coffee shop.”

The national labor board has now issued 22 official complaints against Starbucks, encompassing over 80 charges and 542 violations of labor law, according to a press release from Workers United. Two weeks ago, a federal judge in Memphis, Tenn., ordered Starbucks to rehire seven workers alleged to be illegally fired.
On Aug. 25, the NLRB demanded Starbucks pay back 100% of denied benefits to workers at hundreds of unionized stores. They have also demanded that Schultz testify before Congress, that all managers and supervisors attend a labor law and worker rights training, and that the company issue a letter of apology to all Starbucks employees.

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MILI MANSARAY is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.