Tori Tambellini Tori Tambellini
Tori Tambellini

Tori Tambellini was fired after working to unionize her Starbucks store in Pittsburgh. In an op-ed, she talks about the importance of supporting candidates who support workers.

Pittsburgh is known for its steel, but more importantly, for being a union city. I didn’t think much about that until I needed to unionize as a Starbucks worker. I’ve been in the service industry for most of my life because my parents owned a restaurant in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. The service industry is essential, and we deserve fair wages and the right to unionize. After being illegally fired from my job earlier this year, it’s clear to me that we need to elect leaders like gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, who believes in unions for all and has my rights in mind. 

My Starbucks is in downtown Pittsburgh, which is a high-incident store. This means that we have people coming into our store who are struggling with substance abuse all of the time. My team took it upon ourselves to train on how to use Narcan. I never imagined actually needing to use it, but someone actually overdosed in the cafe. I had to step in and administer it, ultimately saving this person’s life. Starbucks doesn’t realize the safety issues or the amount of additional work that’s on us as workers, and frankly, baristas shouldn’t be responsible for saving people’s lives.  

But all we’re also asking for is fair wages. This past year, the Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz received a massive salary increase while his workers received additional pennies. Our salaries have remained stagnant while we see a small cup of coffee increase from $1.50 to $2.89. It’s clear to us that inflation is very real. It’s not just because the price of coffee is going up. We are struggling to pay for gas to get to work and rent to have a place to stay.

Most Starbucks employees I know work two jobs to make ends meet. I worked from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday at Starbucks, after which I worked a bartending job Thursday through Sunday from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. While I typically had Monday and Tuesday off from work, there would always be some sort of crisis at Starbucks where I would be called into staff. We believe in hard work, but working this much just to survive is not sustainable, and we need to stop politicians who want us to work more for less.

Take Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania. He may say he supports hard-working Pennsylvanians, but he voted against raising our minimum wage to just $9.50 an hour and even said there should be no minimum wage protections at all. He’s standing behind corporations like Starbucks that exploit their workers. Mastriano is even backing a ‘right-to-work’ bill that would take away the right of many Pennsylvanians to organize or join a union at their workplace. After I led the campaign to unionize my cafe, I was targeted and illegally fired because the company found out that I had started to help other workers throughout the greater Pittsburgh area.

Throughout the entire process of unionizing our store—from organizing to voting—Starbucks stores nationwide have been supported by unions including Pittsburgh’s own United Steelworkers and SEIU (Service Employees International Union). On the day we officially unionized, United Steelworkers members came by our store to celebrate with us because they know how important and powerful unions are for workers. Starbucks workers are now working on expanding the campaign with the Pennsylvania Workers United Joint Board. Pittsburgh is union strong, and Mastriano doesn’t stand with us. 

On the other hand, Democratic candidate for governor Josh Shapiro is committed to raising wages, cutting costs, and improving benefits for all workers. We know this because as attorney general, he has taken on big corporations. He recently delivered one of the biggest victories for workers in US history when he sued a construction company for nearly $21 million in wage theft and won. With his record, I know he’ll help us hold Starbucks accountable. 

The fight for workers’ rights is not just where we work, but also at the ballot box. The only way we can truly hold corporations like Starbucks accountable is by having leaders and a government that believes in its workers. I plan to continue to support Starbucks workers in their fight to unionize, and I plan to support Josh Shapiro for governor this fall.

Tori Tambellini is a Pittsburgh native who worked at Starbucks for many years.