Mass firings, wage cuts and open hostility: workers are still unionizing despite obstacles

Companies are hiring anti-union consultants and deploying hardball tactics when workers threaten to form a union

Brandi McNease worked at a Chipotle in Augusta, Maine, where she and her co-workers had filed a union election petition in June 2022, the first location of the fast-food retail chain to do so.

Chipotle closed the store permanently on 19 July, right before a hearing with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on the union election, leaving workers saying they were blacklisted from being hired at other locations in the area. Chipotle claimed the store was shut down due to staffing problems. Workers have filed unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB over the store closure.

“Essentially, they waited until the morning, then when they realized that we weren’t going to quit, they flipped the checkerboard,” said McNease.

Such events have become commonplace in the US amid a widespread unionization drive that has taken on some of the biggest names in corporate America, from Starbucks and Trader Joe’s to Amazon and Chipotle. As the drive has moved forward – amid signs of increased public support for unions – corporations have strongly opposed unionization and attempted to dissuade efforts by hiring expensive law firms and consultants while deploying a suite of other hardball tactics, from firings to branch closings.

A recent Gallup poll found 71% of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest approval rate since 1965. The NLRB has seen a 58% increase in union election petitions in the first three-quarters of fiscal year 2022. The number of strikes increased 76% in the first half of 2022 compared with 2021, with nearly three times the number of workers on strike.

The US labor movement has seen a resurgence with the Biden administration and the NLRB more supportive of worker organizing than previous administrations. Despite this, US employers vehemently oppose unionization efforts and investigations of labor law violations have been delayed due to underfunding and stagnated labor law reforms in Congress.

Chipotle restaurant workers protest in New York City. The majority of Americans approve of labor unions today.
Chipotle restaurant workers protest in New York City. The majority of Americans approve of labor unions today. Photograph: Raul H Vidaurre/AFP/Getty Images

‘A lot of us were getting burnt out’

Workers in the midst of union organizing campaigns have reported mass firings of union-supporting employees, and accused corporations of shutting down stores in response to union campaigns. The number of charges filed for unfair labor practices increased 16% in the first three-quarters of 2022 compared with 2021.

At a Petco store in Aurora Village, Washington, workers filed a petition for a union election in August 2022 in an effort to become the first unionized store at the corporate pet retail chain. But they recently had to pull their petition after Petco attempted to break up the bargaining unit in their store, they claim.

Olivia O’Neill, a dog groomer at the Petco store for more than two years, explained that when the union campaign went public, management first tried to feel out the sentiments of workers and began to fix some underlying issues, such as the air conditioning in the store.

“We were having our hours cut, we weren’t being paid according to the cost of living here and a lot of us were getting burnt out and didn’t have time off,” said O’Neill.

Mason Cross, a merchandising associate at the Petco store, said many full-time workers have seen their hours cut from 40 hours a week to 30, with part-time workers experiencing cuts from 20 hours to fewer than 10 hours a week.

Cross said Petco challenged their union election withdrawal and argued to the regional NLRB that the store should be barred from filing another election petition for six months. He also claimed the store manager – who he says has been standoffish toward workers supporting the union – said pro-union flyers violated Petco’s anti-solicitation policy.

“Our general manager has, especially, been pretty hostile toward union supporters. He’s been going as far as, you know, doing illegal things such as removing our union flyers from our break room repeatedly,” said Cross. “I feel like they know exactly who is very vocal and unionizing and they are trying to discourage us from moving forward.”

Petco did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

‘We still prevailed’: workers gain new energy to organize

Workers in Buffalo, New York, unionized the first Starbucks location in December 2021.
Workers in Buffalo, New York, unionized the first Starbucks location in December 2021. Photograph: Joshua Bessex/AP

At Starbucks, pro-union workers at more than 225 stores around the US have won elections so far, but they have also filed numerous unfair labor practice charges over the company’s opposition to union organizing campaigns, including claims of store closures in response to union organizing. They also claim that nearly 100 workers have been fired in retaliation for union organizing.

Brett Taborelli worked at Starbucks for eight years in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area until August 2022, when his manager disputed his scheduling availability, which he had maintained for the past four years. He was locked out of the Starbucks system and removed from the schedule after he tried to invoke his right to union representation during a meeting with the manager.

Taborelli was a vocal union supporter at his store, which workers voted to unionize in June 2022. He claimed he never received termination papers from Starbucks and that the company was disputing his unemployment benefits claim. Starbucks did not comment on these specific allegations.

In early August 2022, Taborelli said, managers followed him into the store when he arrived at 5.30am to start his scheduled shift. “I’ve never felt more harassed in my entire life, or more creeped out,” he said.

Tori Tambellini, a Starbucks barista in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, also claimed she was fired in retaliation for union organizing after she and her co-workers won their union election in May 2022 despite the company’s aggressive anti-union campaign.

“It was, overall, a nightmare. But somehow, we still prevailed and we won our election,” said Tambellini.

She claimed that she was ultimately fired for time and attendance issues, but that some of the violations cited on her termination papers didn’t align with the hours she worked.

“They have just been on this scorched-earth method of union busting,” said Tambellini. “They are just doing literally anything in their power, whether it’s illegal or not, to at least just slow down our momentum. But we don’t plan on stopping any time soon. In fact, it’s helped us organize even harder and made us more motivated.”

Starbucks has denied all claims of retaliation and union-busting, and instead characterized all firings as linked to policy violations. The company, however, lost an appeal to an NLRB order to reinstate seven workers in Memphis, Tennessee, who were fired in January 2022. Other allegations remain under review.

A Starbucks spokesperson said in an email: “Tori and Brett are no longer with Starbucks for violations of our time and attendance policies. Our partners receive training on our policies and are aware that failing to uphold them can result in termination.” Starbucks has also denied that policies are enforced inconsistently or arbitrarily.


Michael Sainato

The GuardianTramp

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