A barista fought to unionize her Starbucks. Now she’s out of a job.

Photo for The Washington Post by Lauren Petracca
Lexi Rizzo leaves her apartment for a potluck dinner at the Starbucks Workers United office in Buffalo, N.Y. with other fired Starbucks employees on April 15.

BUFFALO – Lexi Rizzo was cleaning dishes in the back of her Starbucks store on March 31 when she noticed that her manager was printing a document, her hands shaking.

“I’m getting fired,” Rizzo, 25, told her co-workers through her store headset.

Her boss called her over a few seconds later. “This is not my favorite day,” the manager began. Rizzo hit record on her phone. Even though she had signed Rizzo’s notice of separation, the manager told Rizzo that she had hoped the company would not dismiss her.

“It honestly kills me,” she told Rizzo.

For months, Rizzo had clocked in before dawn convinced that the company where she had worked for nearly eight years was determined to fire her. And Rizzo thought she knew why: She was one of 49 baristas from across Buffalo who sent a letter to the company’s chief executive in August 2021 informing him that they were seeking to form a union.

Today there are about 320 unionized Starbucks stores in the United States – a rare bright spot for the shrinking labor movement. But the gains have come at a price, union officials said. Only 13 of the workers who signed the original Buffalo organizing letter are still with the company.

Rizzo, a shift supervisor, had seen the union as a solution to so many of the problems that plagued her family and her country. Like most of her co-workers, she had grown up in an era of historic inequality, raised by parents who struggled to pay their bills. She emerged from the pandemic and the labor shortage it spawned with a new sense of her worth and a determination to wrest back some power from her corporate bosses.

Now her fight had reached a critical moment with implications for service workers nationwide, the people at the core of America’s working class. At issue was whether these workers would be able to organize and press their employers for higher wages, steadier hours and better benefits. Today, only 6 percent of private-sector workers nationwide belong to unions, the lowest rate in nearly a century. The Starbucks union drive was raising existential questions for the labor movement. Was organizing large numbers of service workers even possible? Did unions have a place in the modern American economy?

In the back of Rizzo’s Starbucks, away from the customers getting their late-morning caffeine fix, her manager was struggling to finish her sentences and maintain her composure. Nearly two months earlier, on Feb. 4, Rizzo had closed the store at 7:30 p.m. and the following morning slept through her alarm, leaving her 57 minutes late to a 5:30 a.m. opening shift. The mistake triggered an investigation, the manager said.

“I think my hardest part is that you’ve been a partner for so long,” she continued. Starbucks executives regularly refer to their hourly workers as “partners.”

“You care about this store,” said the manager, who asked not to be named fearing public backlash. “You care about the people in it, and that’s the heartbreaking . . . You’re a great employee to me, and I value everything. . . .” The boss took a deep breath. “I wanna give you a hug,” she told Rizzo, wrapping her arms around her.

“I’ll be back. I’ll fight,” Rizzo replied. “Don’t you worry.”

She tucked her balled-up green apron under her arm and strode into the cafe, where her co-workers were waiting and crying. Rizzo hugged them and then glanced down at her separation paperwork. Her final misstep had occurred on March 1.

According to the document, she had been “1 minute late” to a 6 a.m. shift.

Two days before Rizzo was fired, Howard Schultz, the company’s billionaire founder, was summoned to Washington to testify before the Senate.

His forced appearance before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was an indication of the importance of the Starbucks union drive and the crisis facing the labor movement.

The vast majority of the country’s working class does not toil on the factory floor with a union to look out for their interests. Most work in the country’s ever-expanding low-wage service economy.

Increasingly, those workers are trying to unionize. The Starbucks drive has inspired similar organizing efforts at retailers such as Trader Joe’s, Apple, REI and Chipotle – as well as fierce resistance from Schultz and his team.

In the last year, judges have ruled that Starbucks violated U.S. labor laws more than 130 times across six states, among the most of any private employer nationwide. The rulings found that Starbucks retaliated against union supporters by surveilling them at work, firing them and promising them improved pay and benefits if they rejected the organizing campaign.

The company has blamed the union’s negative influence for a higher rate of employee attrition at stores that have organized, and it has denied wrongdoing. “Starbucks has always been a different kind of company and, while not perfect, we consistently do what’s right for our partners, our customers and business,” the company said in a statement.

Starbucks’s anti-union campaign has been most intense in Buffalo, a working-class city where the union drive began. In early March, an administrative law judge found Starbucks had committed “egregious and widespread misconduct” in Buffalo and ordered the coffee giant to rehire seven “unlawfully discharged” employees.

It’s against the law to fire workers for organizing. But as Rizzo and the other Starbucks workers were learning, there’s also little to stop companies from doing it. The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that oversees union elections and protects workers’ rights, has struggled to hold on to staff members amid deep budget cuts. Since 2010, it is down about 520 employees, or 30 percent of its workforce. The primary penalty that it can impose on companies for dismissing pro-union employees – reinstatement with back pay – has been a paltry deterrent, labor advocates said.

And so in late March, senators were largely reduced to cajoling and shaming Schultz into obeying federal law. Schultz began the hearing by telling lawmakers that his company “had not broken the law” and that his workers did not need a union. Unions, he said, were for companies that abused their employees, not Starbucks, which offered health coverage, stock options and free online college through Arizona State University. “We do nothing that is nefarious,” he said. “We put our people first . . . and we have the track record to prove it.”

The company’s generosity, Schultz maintained, was born of his own childhood struggles. When Schultz was 10, he said, his father slipped on a patch of ice, broke his hip and ankle, and was “promptly fired” from his job as a truck driver. The setback “fractured our family,” he told the senators, and decades later inspired him, as Starbucks’s CEO, to build the kind of company that would give his workers a “chance at a better life.”

The Republicans on the committee praised Schultz for creating tens of thousands of jobs and building a global corporation. The Democrats, meanwhile, warned him that the company’s past generosity didn’t give it free rein to break federal labor laws. And they tried to convince him that his unionizing workers were no different from his dad.

“Your father had no rights, and your family paid the price. That’s how your workers now feel,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) told him. “These workers are just like your father.”

Rizzo’s childhood was marked by frequent evictions and parents who served prison sentences for drug-related crimes. At 17, she dropped out of high school and found work at a Starbucks in Naples, Fla. She was promoted to shift supervisor and in 2017, eager to escape the poverty and disorder of home, moved to Buffalo to live with her cousin. “Having a drug-addicted parent puts you in the position of being their parent,” Rizzo said. “I had to take care of my mom. She didn’t take care of me.”

Rizzo settled in Buffalo and got hired at Starbucks No. 23917, which sat beside a busy six-lane road, sandwiched between several chain hotels and Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Starbucks offered a solid wage. She earned about $23 an hour as a shift supervisor, though she sometimes struggled to get full-time hours. The job also brought stability. “The first family environment I’ve ever experienced,” she said. Rizzo got her GED and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Arizona State through Starbucks’s free online college program. Her managers praised her dedication to her store and co-workers. “Lexi was an exemplary partner,” said David Almond, one of her former managers in Buffalo. “She loves coffee and Starbucks with all of her soul.”

In August 2021, Rizzo was among the first Starbucks employees in Buffalo to join the nascent union’s organizing committee. Rizzo hoped a union would yield better health insurance. Even though she had been covered by the company’s plan, a stack of medical bills, totaling more than $5,000 for multiple surgeries, sat on the same bookshelf as her college diploma. “At some point I stopped opening them,” she said of the bills. “I told myself that I’d worry about them when I was healthy.”

She also hoped the union would help workers negotiate pay raises and more reliable hours, which were frequently cut in January and February when customer traffic slowed. Rizzo didn’t know much about organized labor beyond the experience of an aunt who worked as a Southwest Airlines flight attendant. But her long history with Starbucks, her calm manner and edgy look helped her win over co-workers. Rizzo’s wardrobe came from secondhand clothing stores. She wore a stud in the space between her nose and upper lip. Sleeves of tattoos covered her arms.

“We’ve got the cool baristas on our side,” one of her colleagues recalled thinking when she walked into the organizing committee’s first meeting.

Within a week, Rizzo had persuaded all of the hourly workers at her store to sign union cards, expressing support for an election. The company responded by doubling the number of employees at her store to more than 40 in an attempt to dilute the voting pool, according to the judge’s ruling in the Buffalo case. Starbucks also flooded the Buffalo market with dozens of managers from around the country. In Rizzo’s store the extra bosses donned headsets – even when they weren’t serving customers – so that they could monitor the workers’ conversations, the judge found. Starbucks officials said that the changes were necessary to help underperforming stores, an argument the judge deemed not credible.

Sometimes they ordered Rizzo to stop talking about the union with her co-workers, according to testimony from Rizzo and other workers. As the election approached, Starbucks slashed her store’s hours, making it difficult for longtime employees to pay their bills. Some of the workers blamed the union drive.

“It was bad before, but that’s not even comparable to the chaos it is now,” one of the baristas complained in the employee text chain as the election approached. “I just want to make coffee and not think about it after work.”

“We can’t work here without feeling suffocated,” another barista wrote.

“The general feeling is simply that we f—ed ourselves,” a shift supervisor added. The Washington Post is not naming the workers to protect them from possible reprisals.

Rizzo fought to win back their support, reminding them that their efforts were already producing results. Shortly after the union push was announced, the company had promised to raise wages and institute credit card tipping. She reassured her co-workers that she wouldn’t be angry if they voted against the union.

“We’ve been treated as disposable for a long time and I want us to be worth more to this company,” she wrote in the group chat. “I’m not stuck on how that happens for us. I just know we deserve better.” In December 2021, Rizzo’s store and another on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo voted to become the first U.S. Starbucks to unionize.

Their early improbable victory caught the attention of baristas in dozens of cities around the country, who petitioned for their own votes. Congratulations poured in from the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

Rizzo knew that the company was still determined to crush the union and that winning a contract could take years. But she felt as if she were fighting for something bigger than herself, her store or even Starbucks. She expected that politicians and celebrities would pressure the coffee giant to bargain with them in good faith. She believed the NLRB and the federal courts would force the company to follow the law. She imagined that if they succeeded, other service workers at places such as McDonald’s and Burger King would also seek to unionize. “Starbucks is banking on us giving up,” she said in an interview a few weeks after her store voted to unionize. “We’re not going to.”

Rizzo had little sense of how Starbucks would fight. Nationwide, the union said, Starbucks has dismissed more than 200 employees who backed the union drives. In his Senate testimony, Schultz said the company had not targeted pro-union workers. “Starbucks Coffee Company unequivocally has not broken the law,” he told lawmakers.

Shortly after the union campaign launched in the summer of 2021, managers began citing Rizzo for minor dress code infractions – small rips in the knees of her jeans, an unauthorized suicide awareness button on her apron – that she said were previously never an issue. The company reassigned Rizzo from closing shifts, which she had worked for her entire career, to opening the store as early as 4:30 a.m. In 2021 she was late to three shifts and then went 12 months without any incidents of tardiness. In August 2022, Rizzo said she was suffering from a migraine that hit her “like a truck” and didn’t wake up for her 4:30 a.m. opening. She rose to a concerned co-worker banging on her door around 9:45 a.m. and immediately called and texted her manager.

“I am so sorry from the bottom of my heart,” she wrote. “I feel awful.”

“I know,” the manager replied. “Accidents happen, just happy you are ok.” The store remained closed that day until noon.

The company gave her a “final written warning,” the step before dismissal, and changed her schedule a few weeks later. She was now often responsible for closing the store at 7:30 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. Friday and then reopening at 5:30 a.m. Saturday. Because she lived about 30 minutes away, she would have to wake up for work only eight or nine hours after returning home. Rizzo said she was the only person at her store, other than the manager, assigned to close and then open.

When Rizzo complained, her store manager told her that she didn’t have any other workers who could take the shifts. A Starbucks official, who was authorized by the company to speak on the condition of anonymity, said Rizzo had asked her manager for at least 30 hours a week because she was “financially struggling.” The new schedule was an attempt to meet her needs, the official said.

The final written warning meant that Rizzo was now one mistake away from being fired. She worried constantly about not waking up for her shift, which made it even harder to fall asleep. “I walk into work every day feeling like I might be walking into my own execution,” she told The Post in December 2022.

Her solution, she said, was to try harder than anyone in her store. “If I can just tough this out, if they need me enough, if I’m perfect every day, then they can’t fire me,” she recalled thinking. As a teenager Rizzo had struggled with anorexia, which she said was a product of her chaotic childhood and feeling as though she had no control over her life. Amid all the stress, her eating disorder returned.

For the first time in years, she began seeing a psychiatrist and taking prescription medication for her condition.

In early February of this year, she closed the store on a Friday night and overslept, leaving her 57 minutes late for her opening shift the following morning. Nearly two months later, on March 31, she was fired. Rizzo’s separation document cited her lateness in early February, which the company said was the cause of her firing. It also included four other instances in which she was an average of 2 minutes and 40 seconds late.

In a statement, Starbucks said Rizzo was “a valued and contributing shift supervisor . . . Had it not been for continued punctuality issues that impacted her peers and customers she would still be employed.”

For Rizzo, the dismissal couldn’t have come at a worse time. Her longtime partner had been hit by a car while biking two weeks earlier, shattering his knee and wrist and leaving him unable to walk or work his bartending job. Rizzo’s job was their only source of income. Her situation in that moment was reminiscent of Schultz’s story of his father’s injury and firing. The Starbucks CEO had told it dozens of times in speeches, books and before Congress.

No one at Starbucks, though, seemed to hear the echo. Even after Rizzo’s firing, the company continued to level new allegations, unrelated to her dismissal. A Starbucks official accused her in an interview of falsifying time logs to cover for her lateness. “She could have been fired for that,” the official said. “That’s an integrity issue.”

The company cited only one example. Store video showed Rizzo arriving at work at 5:36 a.m. on Feb. 26 of this year. Rizzo wrote 5:34 a.m. as her start time in the log. Rizzo said she had spent the two minutes in the parking lot waiting for her co-worker to arrive. (Starbucks employees aren’t permitted in the store alone.) A text message from the day backs up her account. “I’m running late,” her co-worker had written her around 5:20 a.m.

In the days after she was fired, Rizzo applied for food stamps, Medicaid and unemployment benefits. In the near term there wasn’t much she could do to fight back. No celebrities were urging a boycott of the company. No senators were demanding that Starbucks rehire her. Rizzo filmed a video that was posted to the union’s TikTok page and got about 640,000 views.

“What would you say to Howard Schultz?” one of her colleagues prompted.

“You have hundreds of thousands of people giving everything that they have so you can make another dollar,” she replied. “Then you treat us like dirt. It’s disgusting.”

Rizzo wasn’t the only union supporter in Buffalo under scrutiny. Less than an hour after Rizzo was dismissed, Starbucks managers issued a written warning to Gianna Reeve, a 22-year-old shift supervisor who had traveled to Washington and confronted Schultz as he left the Senate hearing room. “Don’t have this be your legacy!” she called out to him.

Two days after Schultz’s hearing on March 29, Reeve received a disciplinary notice for closing blinds and turning off lights at her store while it was still open to customers. The alleged incident had occurred in late January. A Starbucks official declined to explain why the company had waited more than 60 days to discipline Reeve. Her written warning said that she had failed to “create a clean, welcoming, safe environment” in the store. Reeve, who still works for Starbucks, said she had no memory of the day but worried she too would soon be fired. “The floor is made of eggshells,” she said.

Sometimes Rizzo wondered if unionizing was worth the struggle. The bargaining sessions with the company over a first contract were going nowhere – most lasted less than 10 minutes before the Starbucks attorneys walked out. Each side was accusing the other of negotiating in bad faith. “The company is not really suffering,” Rizzo said. “The people who are really suffering are all the people that I love and care about. I think about everything that my store partners have been through because of what I started and, yeah, I have a lot of moments of doubt.”

Shortly after Rizzo’s firing, her former co-workers voted unanimously to launch a two-day strike. The company brought in managers to run the drive-through. Rizzo and her co-workers stood in the store parking lot and tried to persuade customers to turn away. Eventually, the managers called the police, who shooed the striking workers down the street. Rizzo knew none of it was enough to hurt Starbucks, which had reported record sales in the first quarter of 2023 and had recently announced plans to grow its footprint in China to 9,000 stores.

In mid-April, a dozen fired Starbucks workers met for a potluck at the union’s Buffalo offices in a converted Ford factory. Nearly 18 months earlier, Rizzo had gathered with her colleagues in the same century-old building to celebrate the new union’s first win.

When the victory was announced, Rizzo, who was tracking the vote count on a legal pad, leaped into the air and shouted with joy. Now she was holding a dish of mashed potatoes in the parking lot with three of her fired colleagues who had celebrated alongside her that day. They were waiting on a person with the key to the union offices.

“Is everyone fashionably late?” one of the workers asked.

“That’s why we all got fired,” Rizzo joked.

Most of the former workers at the potluck were going to testify in the coming week at a second Starbucks trial in Buffalo. The judge’s ruling in the first trial, issued about a month before Rizzo was fired, concluded that “Starbucks’ widespread coercive behavior . . . had permeated every store in the Buffalo market.”

This time the NLRB complaint consisted of more than 30 charges, including 10 cases of Starbucks allegedly firing workers in Buffalo for union activity.

“This is the trial where I get my job back,” said Sam Amato, a 34-year-old shift supervisor who was dismissed last summer after 13 years with the company.

“Are you excited?” Rizzo asked.

“More nervous,” he replied.

Amato was fired last summer after his short-staffed store switched to drive-through-only operations without management approval. The shift supervisor who preceded Amato at work said that she alone had ordered the change and locked the cafe doors while Amato was rushing to serve customers. Amato, a prominent union supporter, was the only person fired. Starbucks officials said that because Amato had begun his shift, he was in charge and therefore responsible. They also noted that Amato had received a “final written warning” for an unrelated incident that occurred nearly two years earlier.

Even if the judge ruled in Amato’s favor, Starbucks could appeal, and the government’s lawyers told him that it was unlikely he would get his job back before next year. Still, after months of waiting, he was eager for his day in court. “I’m hoping it’ll be therapeutic,” he told Rizzo.

Rizzo would also be testifying at the trial about last summer’s final written warning, which the board was asking the judge to expunge. Her firing probably would be part of a third trial in the future.

The former Starbucks workers drank wine, ate lasagna and talked about Schultz’s Senate appearance. Amato had been in the hearing room that day, one of a dozen or so workers sent by the union. He was sitting just a few yards from Mellody Hobson, the chair of the company’s board, who was clad in a Starbucks green blazer. Amato had looked up her Instagram account, which was packed with pictures of artists and liberal icons, such as Maya Angelou and Shirley Chisholm. He had wanted to tell her in person that day how much he loved his job and how his firing had left him feeling angry and depressed. But Hobson had left the room before he had the chance. In an email, Hobson said that she was “completely unaware” anyone was trying to speak with her and that she backed the company.

The fired workers’ potluck was drawing to a close. “I wonder how much they know about us?” Amato asked, thinking of Hobson and Schultz.

“I think they know everything,” said Victoria Conklin, who was fired last summer after five years with Starbucks. The NLRB was also calling for her to be reinstated. In the interim she had found work as an Olive Garden waitress.

Around 10 p.m., the fired workers drifted out to the parking lot. Rizzo hugged Amato. They had been friends since she moved to Buffalo six years earlier. She had rushed to his store to support him on the day he was fired and picketed with him and his co-workers in the parking lot afterward. “Good luck with your testimony,” she told him. Amato waved and drove off.

Three days later, on April 18, Rizzo was sitting in the witness chair being questioned by Starbucks’s attorney about her record at the company and the incident last August that had led to her final written warning.

The union’s lawyer told her that the Starbucks attorney would try to fluster her and make her lose her temper on the stand. “I’m going to talk to him the way I would to any man who’s angry because his latte isn’t right,” she told herself. She hoped she wouldn’t cry. Rizzo wore black jeans with small rips in the knee. The Starbucks attorney questioning her was clad in a dark gray suit.

“Isn’t it true that you received multiple time and attendance corrective actions in the years that you’ve been working for Starbucks?” the lawyer began.

“I worked there for a very long time.” Rizzo replied. “So probably.”

The lawyer handed her a corrective action form that detailed a “documented coaching” for tardiness six years earlier and asked Rizzo if she recalled it. Rizzo looked at the piece of paper for several seconds. “This was so long ago that I don’t remember it happening, personally,” she told him. “But that’s my signature.”

The cross-examination continued for about 45 minutes. The lawyer pressed her to explain a half-dozen incidents of lateness amassed over the course of more than 1,000 workdays since she started with the company in 2015. On one of those days, Rizzo’s text messages showed that she was late because she had been admitted to the hospital, where she was kept overnight.

Eventually, the lawyer arrived at the morning in question: Aug. 28, 2022.

Rizzo talked about going to sleep with a migraine, waking to a co-worker banging on her door and calling her store manager to apologize. “I was in a full-blown panic,” she testified. “I started sobbing uncontrollably.”

The Starbucks attorney asked if she had ever sought an accommodation from the company for her migraines, and Rizzo explained that they were a byproduct of prescription medication she had been taking for severe abdominal pain caused by her chronic endometriosis, a condition in which tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus. She said she had called Starbucks’s human resources department but was told that her pain was too “irregular and erratic” and that there wasn’t anything the company could do for her.

“I could go on an indefinite medical leave or try to keep working,” Rizzo testified, “and that’s what I did because I couldn’t afford not to work.” Several months later she got a hysterectomy, she said, and the pain went away.

The judge asked her if she needed a break. She wiped her eyes with a tissue and took a deep breath. After a few more questions, her time on the stand was done. She hugged the union’s lawyer and another Starbucks worker in the hallway outside the courtroom.

For Rizzo, the court proceedings weren’t therapeutic or empowering. The entire day felt dehumanizing, as if her nearly eight years with the company, her medical problems and her physical pain had been reduced to nothing more than malingering and scattered incidents of tardiness. “They’re trying to make these implications that I’m a bad person who doesn’t care about my job, and I know that’s not true,” she said.

The judge is expected to rule this summer on whether Starbucks will have to remove the final written warning from Rizzo’s personnel file. Even if Rizzo prevails, Starbucks can appeal that ruling. Last month, the NLRB’s New York office found merit to the charge that she was fired for her union activity and indicated that it will file a complaint seeking her reinstatement, according to the union’s lawyer.

Rizzo will have to return to court for a third trial and is likely to face the same questions from the same group of Starbucks lawyers. At best, a year – more likely two – will pass before the courts rule, the appeals have been exhausted and Rizzo is potentially eligible to get her job back.

Rizzo had believed that there were laws that could protect her and her colleagues. Now, she said, she knew how the system really worked. She rode down the elevator and rushed past the building security guards out onto the sidewalk. She was no longer crying. She was livid.

“I wanted to scream,” she said. “I honestly wanted to scream.”

Instead, she got in her car and drove home. She needed to make a résumé. She needed to find a job.