Starbucks fired a union organizer. New York City got him rehired

Austin Locke was sacked days after he helped unionize workers. A monumental new labor law means he’s back on the job

Austin Locke was halfway through his shift at the New York City Starbucks where he’d worked for three years when his supervisor ordered him into the back room. The store manager and the district manager were there too, and they had a piece of paper for him: he was fired.

“Are you sure want to do this?” Locke asked them repeatedly. He knew that what they were about to do was illegal.

It didn’t seem like a coincidence that just five days earlier, Locke had helped organize a successful vote to unionize the coffee shop, joining hundreds of other shops in a growing national movement called Starbucks Workers United. And Starbucks has been known for retaliating against those involved.

But the Seattle-based coffee company said Locke was fired for forgetting to sign a log after getting his temperature checked for Covid – something that many other workers regularly forgot as well. The company also accused the 28-year-old of making a false report about a supervisor physically pushing to keep him out of a meeting – an incident caught on security footage that Starbucks refused to look at.

Locke was fired last July and if it had happened in another American city, there’s a chance that would have been the end of it. Most employment in the US operates according to a nightmarish legal doctrine called “at-will”, meaning companies can fire you over almost anything. While it’s illegal to fire someone for organizing a union, or over characteristics such as race, gender or disability, a boss can legally justify axing you for just about any other reason – maybe they don’t like your haircut or your music taste, or they think you laugh too loud. And if you think your firing may have broken the law, the burden is on you to provide the evidence – often something you don’t have access to.

crowd of people walk with signs. One says ‘rehire austin’
A protest on behalf of fired Starbucks workers. The US is one of very few countries to use ‘at-will’ employment. Photograph: Luigi Morris/Left Voice

If that sounds barbaric, that’s because it is. The United States is one of just a few places where at-will is the norm; virtually every other country requires employers to provide some form of cause to terminate someone after a probation period. What few Americans know is that at-will employment is rooted in slavery: after emancipation, railroad bosses who had profited from forced labor argued that if workers now had the “right to quit”, then bosses should have the “right to fire” – a way to keep workers fearful and in line. Unfortunately, judges agreed, and a century and a half later, the doctrine remains the default form of employment here. That doesn’t mean it’s popular: a 2020 survey found that 68% of Americans disagreed that an employer should be able to fire you for any reason.

Irene Tung, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), says her research has found “the at-will system creates pressure for US workers to accept poor working conditions to avoid being fired, and keeps the power balance in favor of the employer. It drives down the quality of life for all workers, even those who aren’t fired.” At the height of the pandemic, a serious movement emerged to question it. “So many workers were experiencing retaliation for speaking up with concerns about Covid in their workplaces, and then really finding out that the protections for speaking out in the workplace are very, very weak.”

In 2021, the NELP and labor organizations like the Service Employees International Union (32 BJ SEIU) helped pass a law in New York City overturning at-will employment for fast-food workers – what Tung calls a “monumental shift”. The provision is called “just cause” and requires any boss firing a fast-food worker in New York City to provide a valid reason – such as poor performance or misconduct – only after giving the worker multiple warnings and enough time to correct the issue, a system called “progressive discipline”. Any fast-food worker found to have been fired without just cause must be reinstated to their position, with back pay.

Locke just became the first worker in New York City to experience that. The day after his firing, he filed a complaint with the city against Starbucks for sacking him without just cause. The form “was very simple to fill out”, Locke says – and he almost immediately heard back from New York’s department of consumer and worker protection saying it would take his case. Over the next few months, he worked with the agency’s lawyers, who were able to subpoena Starbucks for the security footage and prove that Locke’s supervisor had indeed pushed him.

Last week, after nearly seven months of waiting, Locke finally got the good news: Starbucks had agreed to settle. He would get his job back along with back pay and damages, equalling about $17,000 before tax. Starbucks also agreed to pay $3,500 in civil penalties, and to abide by the just cause law. But the coffee giant did not admit any wrongdoing in the settlement. “While we continue to disagree with the city’s interpretation of what constitutes egregious misconduct under the Just Cause law, we have agreed to reinstate Mr Locke and reduce his corrective action to a written warning for violation of health and safety protocols,” said a Starbucks spokesperson, Andrew Trull, in an emailed statement.

Locke had also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Starbucks illegally retaliated against him for his involvement with the union – he dropped that suit as part of his settlement. But on Wednesday, a federal judge ruled that Starbucks had committed “egregious” violations of federal labor law in firing other Starbucks workers at locations in upstate New York. After that ruling, Senator Bernie Sanders scheduled a vote to subpoena the Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, to “hold Starbucks and Mr Schultz accountable”.

protesters hold signs that say ‘starbucks workers united’
Starbucks settled its case with Locke. Photograph: Luigi Morris/Left Voice

In New York City, Locke’s victory has invigorated other Starbucks employees, including 19-year-old Riley Fell and 26-year-old Crys Mathieu. Both are working with 32 BJ SEIU to try to unionize their shops in lower Manhattan, and last week each filed a complaint against Starbucks for violating another part of the just cause law that gives workers the right to consistent hours. If Starbucks retaliates against them, they’re hoping they’ll be protected like Locke was. “DCWP gave him the full back pay, which is not something we’ve seen before. It’s awesome to know that that’s possible,” Fell says.

Labor advocates’ next goal is to pass an even broader bill called the secure jobs act, which would extend just cause protections to nearly all private sector workers in the city (and ban employers from using invasive electronic surveillance to discipline workers). Tung, who is involved in the effort, hopes to see laws like these spread across the United States. “It’s long overdue that this country joins the rest of the world,” she says.

On Monday, Locke donned his green apron and strode back into the store. He’s happy to see his co-workers again, and with a union behind him, he’s feeling “relaxed and secure”. But he’s still working for the same managers. “I can tell it’s awkward for them,” he says.

“There’s been so many times when they’ve been having problems with my numbers in the system,” he says. “And I’ve had to hold back my tongue from saying: ‘Oh, I guess that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t fired me.’”


Wilfred Chan

The GuardianTramp

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