Laila Dalton Reflects on Surviving Starbucks' Union-Busting Tactics

Laila Dalton protested at a Phoenix-area Starbucks earlier this year.
Laila Dalton protested at a Phoenix-area Starbucks earlier this year. Laila Dalton
Building a labor movement in Phoenix is no easy task. Over the past year, though, the labor movement in Phoenix has seen some major wins.

Last fall, airport workers at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport went on a 10-day strike, scoring a new contract after years of bargaining. In June, a former budtender at Curaleaf’s dispensary in Gilbert won her job back after arguing in court that the cannabis giant fired her for organizing. And employees at Starbucks locations across the Valley joined unions — becoming some of the first unions at the coffeehouse chain in the country.

To commemorate Labor Day, Phoenix New Times spoke with four union leaders and rank-and-file workers — from teachers to dispensary workers — about the victories and struggles of the past year, and the labor movement in Arizona.

The Labor of Love series:

Today: Laila Dalton is an activist and organizer in Phoenix. At 19 years old, she started a union drive at a Starbucks on Scottsdale Road — and faced serious backlash from the company.

Wednesday: Victoria Stahl Joined the Picket Line at Sky Harbor. The Strike Worked.

Anissa Keane Won Her Job Back Two Years After Being Fired for Organizing
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Laila Dalton and others protested at a Starbucks earlier this year.
Laila Dalton

Her Work at Starbucks was Part of Something Bigger

In winter 2021, Starbucks faced a crush of labor organizing across the country. It began with a store in Buffalo, New York, that voted to unionize in December — becoming the first U.S. union for the coffee giant. By spring, the movement had taken root at Starbucks locations across the Valley, including stores in Mesa and Avondale.

At that time, Laila Dalton, an Arizona State University student, watched the union activity from the Starbucks on Scottsdale Road and Mayo Boulevard where she worked. She was 19 years old. She turned 20 this summer. Dalton joined Starbucks without even knowing what a cappuccino was. She had just moved to the East Valley from Florida, where she grew up. By the beginning of 2022, though, Dalton had worked her way up through the ranks to become a supervisor.

It hadn’t been an easy journey. During her time at Starbucks, Dalton worked in stores with serious understaffing and management problems, she said. “I saw a lack of communication,” she told New Times. “I saw no support.”

When a coworker told Dalton about what was happening in Buffalo, she was inspired. In recent weeks, efforts to address the issues she had with the company had failed. “I thought I had to quit,” she said. Instead, she teamed up with a coworker, Bill Whitmire, to form a union at the Starbucks on Scottsdale and Mayo.

The response from Starbucks was swift.

Days after Dalton began distributing union cards, she was pulled aside by a manager and was disciplined for a list of supposed transgressions that dated back six months. The video of this confrontation, which Dalton recorded, was ultimately picked up by labor media outlet More Perfect Union — and went viral.

“I get an improper call out of work when I’m in the hospital? A different time because my aunt died?” Dalton asked her supervisor in the video, wiping away tears.

This interaction was not an isolated incident, Dalton said. “I went through it for a pretty long time. I got multiple write-ups. I was always taken into the back room for investigations,” she told New Times. The discipline began when the union drive started. Yet for Dalton, it was more than just retaliation for labor organizing. “I’m not just a union organizer. I’m a woman of color,” she said. Dalton is Black and was the only person of color working at the store. White union organizers did not face the same treatment, she said.

The National Labor Relations Board launched an investigation into Starbucks’ actions at the Mayo Boulevard store. In April, the agency filed a complaint against Starbucks. It alleged that Starbucks had committed a host of labor law violations at the store, including coercive interrogations of employees leading the drive and threats to take away benefits for union support.

Around the same time that the April complaint was filed, Dalton was fired. Two managers claimed that she had secretly recorded them. The NLRB alleged that this, too, was anti-union retaliation by Starbucks. In June, a federal judge declined to order Starbucks to reinstate Dalton but agreed that at least some of the disciplinary action she had faced was frivolous. Starbucks maintained that “any claims of anti-union activity are categorically false.”

The case — which was combined in August with five other NLRB complaints against Starbucks locations in Arizona — is still pending before an administrative judge.

Regardless, Dalton has become something of an icon in the labor movement in Phoenix. She has sat on panels at labor conferences. This summer, she spoke at the Phoenix protests after the fall of Roe v. Wade and told a roaring crowd that reproductive rights are part of a broader labor movement. This is something she’s come to realize lately, she told New Times: Her work at Starbucks was part of something bigger.

The store at Scottsdale and Mayo voted to unionize shortly after Dalton was fired. But the results of the election were contested by Starbucks, and the ultimate outcome is still pending. It was a sacrifice for Dalton. She was paying her ASU tuition through Starbucks’ College Achievement Plan, and now she has lost that coverage. But she doesn’t regret it, she said. “If we don’t all come together, the cycle is just going to keep going."
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk