The barista who helped lead a successful union effort this summer says he was illegally terminated by Starbucks in retaliation for his vocal role in organizing the store.

Jacob Lawson, a former shift leader at the Cottonwood Heights Starbucks, and an organizing partner of Starbucks Workers United Utah, believes management has been looking for an excuse to let him go ever since staff voted to unionize on June 10. He said he has been "written up" multiple times for seemingly minor infractions since the vote — although, he has worked for the company five years, Lawson said he had never been warned of disciplinary action by his employer before.

The final straw came this week, when he said he was terminated for damaging company property after writing an artist's name on the wall beneath a mural she had drawn on the store's community board. Lawson said the name had been erased, but said that management claimed they had to call an outside vendor to repaint the wall.

Starbucks did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the matter.

Another Starbucks employee confirmed that Lawson no longer works for the company, but wasn't aware of the details of the termination. The employee spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from the company.

"I won't lie, I feel like I'm out of an abusive relationship," Lawson said, of his recent termination. "I found myself, over these past few months, quickly being targeted by the company. They did not care about me (after the union vote) because they thought they could convince everyone to vote 'No.'"

Starbucks employee Jacob Lawson stands near the chain’s coffee store in Cottonwood Heights on April 15.
Starbucks employee Jacob Lawson stands near the chain’s coffee store in Cottonwood Heights on April 15. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

'It returned my soul to me'

Although Lawson said the last few months of work was like a toxic relationship, he said he loved his work as a barista, overall, and is actively working with the union to petition the National Labor Relations Board to have him reinstated as an employee.

From the beginning of his union drive, Lawson has said the company views baristas as expendable, and managers push employees hard, with the expectation that the staff will turn over regularly. Lawson said the company needs to do more to incentivize and reward employees who want to make a long-term career at Starbucks.

"We don't hate Starbucks," he told the Deseret News in April. "We're not doing this because we hate Starbucks. We want to stay at Starbucks. That's why we're doing this: so we can feasibly stay at Starbucks longer."

Lawson said he's optimistic the union will succeed in having him reinstated and, ultimately, succeed in making the company a better place for all workers.

"A year ago, I would have never guessed that the union would have given me so much more," he said. "I feel like it returned my soul to me. This union movement has given me a sense of purpose and made me feel that I contributed something genuinely impactful."

In the meantime, Lawson said he plans to continue to play an active role with the union throughout the collective bargaining process, which could begin later this year. Whether he is reinstated or not, he believes the union will help make it a better workplace for everyone.

"We wish to see (Starbucks) as a place to stay, but it fundamentally must be changed first," he said. "Starbucks' current model is not sustainable. Starbucks will run out of employees ... they can't continue to rely on treating us as expendable. We're not cogs in a machine that can be simply switched out when they stop functioning."

Lawson said he thinks the national labor movement is starting to change public perception of organized labor and he wants to continue to raise awareness for what he believes are the positive impacts unions have on employees. Union membership has been associated with an increase in lifetime earnings of $1.3 million, on average, and earlier retirement ages for male workers, according to a recent study published by Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations Review.

What's next?

Lawson said the union has a proposed bargain date with Starbucks on Oct. 28, but he is unsure how long the process could take or what will come next. The union is still trying to get other stores to join the movement after the Starbucks on 400 East and 400 South in Salt Lake City joined in May.

Although he is no longer working for the local franchise, he said he's talked to current employees who are still excited about continuing the effort in his absence. Lawson said he has had a public role throughout the process but there have been several people working hard behind the scenes who can step up.

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When asked if he regretted taking such a public stance, he referred to one of his favorite songs, Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

"Regrets, I've had a few," he said, "but then again, too few to mention."

Lawson said he never expected the movement to get so much attention from the media, politicians and national organizations, but that he's gained valuable experience with things he never thought he would be able to pursue. He already has another role lined up, and said he's considering a career in activism or politics.

"Starbucks forcibly closed one door in my life, but all they're done is forcibly open another," he said. "While the next chapter in my life is full of uncertainty, I'm optimistic for the future."

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