Michael Vestigo wasn’t sure, at first, if he wanted to bring his fursuit to the union rally in Seattle.
Starbucks fired Vestigo from the Starbucks store in Overland Park, Kansas, on April 1—a week after he and his co-workers staged a walkout to protest unsafe working conditions and retaliation from management against their unionization efforts. That morning, his manager pulled him aside and fired him effective immediately for “displaying violent and threatening behavior,” he told me.
“I'm not that kind of person at all,” Vestigo said. He has social anxiety, and in a job review meeting, he cited “trouble standing up for myself” as a weakness. “It's my personal belief that they took that and they basically targeted me because they thought I would just kind of take it lying down,” he said. Their tiny store—made up of a small staff in a building that Vestigo describes as the size of a couple of shipping containers pressed together to make a drive-through and pickup window—won its union vote a week later, on April 8, making it the first unionized Starbucks in Kansas City.
In videos from the Seattle rally in mid April, where hundreds of people came out to support Starbucks workers’ national unionization movement, Vestigo addresses a crowd as Apollo, his Arctic wolf fursona. “Tell me: Does this look violent and threatening?” he exclaims in one video, stretching his fursuitted arms wide.
He’s one of several now-former Starbucks workers who claim the company fired them for helping organize union drives at their stores. It fired at least 18 pro-union employees between February and April, and the number is still rising. The National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Starbucks this month, alleging the company has wrongfully fired dozens of organizers. Starbucks’ union-busting tactics are blatant, from flyers citing fake tweets to closing entire stores when they started organizing.
According to Vestigo, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant invited himself and several other workers to Seattle to join the multiday gathering of labor leaders and other workers in the movement, to meet and participate in marches and rallies. During that trip, Seattle’s Starbucks Reserve Roastery won its union vote unanimously, the day before the big rally.
“While I was in Seattle, doing all of this work, I started to gain confidence, because I was just so sure of what I was doing, and so proud of what we were doing,” Vestigo said. He’d worn the suit at the Overland Park strike, but this was a much bigger event. He checked with the organizers to make sure it was OK, and they were in full support, he said. “So I was like, you know what, I'm gonna do it.”
Holding a microphone at a large labor rights rally, in the hometown of the company he was helping unionize, was a moment he won’t forget, he said. “I was like, how, how did I get here?” he said. “To be there, fully expressing myself and speaking up about something that I was just so passionate about, and seeing that garner any amount of attention, was an awesome feeling. It gave me more confidence than I've ever had in my entire life.”
Aside from his own part in the day, Vestigo said he hoped going as Apollo would represent the diversity of the movement. “I think one of the things that makes a movement so beautiful is the fact that we can all be united despite our differences,” he said. “I think it's very important to acknowledge that we are very different people. But we are part of the same machine, and we deserve to be treated with respect no matter who we are.”
Now, Vestigo is fighting to get his job back. He’s filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, and hopes to get back to work soon. “Ultimately, that's what I want to do. I really loved working for Starbucks. My team was a second family. They're all amazing people. And I just loved working there.”