Starbucks barista Austin Locke and his co-workers won a hard-fought campaign to unionize their Queens store on June 30, making their store one of hundreds of newly-unionized Starbucks across the country.
But just days later, Locke was fired—for an incident that took place several weeks earlier. He says he was let go in retaliation for his union activity, an allegation echoed by dozens of pro-union Starbucks workers around the country who have also been fired by the coffee giant.
Locke told VICE News that on June 8, a supervisor put his hand “firmly” on Locke’s chest to stop him from walking into a room, and then immediately apologized; Starbucks claims that video footage showed the supervisor didn’t touch Locke, but when Locke demanded to see the footage, a manager told him that Starbucks wouldn’t allow him to see it.
Locke also says that after he was fired, on July 5, nearly a month after the incident but just days after the store unionized, New York Police Department officers escorted him out of the building. "[The cops] came to the door, the door was locked and the managers went out to the front and then brought them in, and then the cops are basically just like, ‘They fired you, you have to leave, they say you’re trespassing,’” Locke recalled.
“I was like, ‘Well, I was illegally fired. There’s nothing you guys can do?’ And they said, ‘No, that’s a civil matter.’”
In recent months, the National Labor Relations Board has accused Starbucks of rampant union-busting, and workers at stores across the country have begun striking in protest of the alleged retaliation. The company has fired 70 pro-union workers, according to the union, which said Starbucks “has escalated their anti-union campaign to an unimaginable level.”
“They are firing union leaders across the country, cutting hours, bullying workers, and truly doing everything they can to make life miserable for workers,” the union said in a statement to VICE News. “It is disgusting and hypocritical for a company that brands itself as progressive to be treating its partners this way and destroying people’s lives in the process.”
Workers at Starbucks have won union elections at more than 200 of the coffee titan’s stores in the nine months since the first victory, a wild success story that was unimaginable for many just a year ago.
The effort has resonated across the U.S. labor movement, with Starbucks stores driving a substantial spike in union filings, and other food and retail giants such as REI, Trader Joe’s, and Apple now facing unionization campaigns of their own.
But stories like Locke’s are the primary indicator that Starbucks is still fighting unionization tooth and nail.
Locke called out of work sick on June 6 and 7 with a cough and a fever, but he continued to test negative for COVID-19. When he came back to work on June 8, he told VICE News, he signed a physical log attesting he didn’t have COVID but says he was also told to fill out a form on an iPad.
But Locke says he couldn’t find a working tablet to complete the checklist, and so he began working. Hours later, when he again went into the back to inform supervisors it was busy and he and his co-workers needed help, he says a shift supervisor “firmly” put his hand on Locke’s chest to stop him from entering the back because they were having a “private conversation.”
Locke maintains that immediately after realizing he’d put his hand on Locke’s chest, the supervisor turned red and said, “I’m so sorry.” An audio recording obtained by VICE News in the aftermath of the incident showed that Locke told supervisors “You can’t put your hands on me” and that he doesn’t feel safe at the store. He was then told to go home.
Two days later, according to another audio recording obtained by VICE News, a manager said Starbucks had investigated and that “video footage” showed the supervisor didn’t touch him; when Locke demanded to see the footage, the manager responded, “The video footage, they will not show you.”
“Of course,” Locke responded. “Of course.” On July 5, almost a month after the incident took place but just days after the store voted to unionize, he was fired.
In his firing paperwork, Starbucks said Locke had violated health and safety protocols by not completing the iPad COVID check-in and “for issues of integrity in connection with making a false claim of workplace violence.” In an email, a Starbucks spokesperson told VICE News that Locke “repeatedly made claims about other partners that were demonstrably false.”
Locke has spent the past month fighting for his job back. He’s filed a charge against Starbucks with the NLRB and told VICE News he’s pursuing his case through New York City’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection.
Hannah Whitbeck, a former shift supervisor who helped lead a successful organizing effort at several stores in Michigan, was fired in April for what Starbucks claimed was “acting in violation of Starbucks safety and security standard” when she left at the end of a shift and the store briefly had one worker in it.
Whitbeck is appealing her firing in an NLRB hearing. She says she’s looking to get her job back as her former co-workers try to bargain a contract, but that being fired has taken a toll on her mental health. “I already deal with depression and anxiety, that’s already a baseline for me,” Whitbeck told VICE News Monday.
“This has just heightened it, unfortunately. It’s great that we’re at this point [the hearing], and I have a great support system, but [the process] is exhausting and it takes a lot out of you.”
Starbucks has repeatedly denied that it’s union busting, claiming that all of the dismissals have been legitimate and driven by the needs of the company rather than retaliation for organizing.
“Claims of retaliatory firings are false,” Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges told VICE News in an email Monday. “A partner’s interest in a union does not exempt them from the standards we have always held. We will continue to consistently enforce our well-established policies.”
The NLRB has repeatedly disagreed. In May, the NLRB’s Buffalo Region issued an enormous complaint accusing Starbucks of illegally firing six workers and of retaliation against more than a dozen others in the western New York area. In June, the NLRB sued Starbucks for immediate reinstatement of seven workers, as well as a nationwide cease-and-desist order for Starbucks to “fully notify employees of their [National Labor Relations Act] rights and the protections being afforded by the court’s order.”
The NLRB has also taken similar actions in Memphis and Phoenix, where workers alleged they were subjected to retaliation for their union activism. (The NLRB sought an injunction to get workers reinstated in Phoenix, but a federal judge dismissed it.)
Even still, the “separations,” as Starbucks refers to firings, appear to have been increased over the past few months, at the same time that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has ramped up a very public campaign against the union. Since April, more than 50 pro-union workers across the country have been let go.
Locke told VICE News that in the time since his firing, his former co-workers have expressed concerns that they could face similar consequences.
“They saw me get fired, and it was messed up and illegal,” Locke said. “They’re afraid of speaking out, of being public about union support.”
Two weeks ago, he helped lead a rally outside his former Starbucks location with workers from other companies such as Amazon and the abortion think tank the Guttmacher Institute, which recently fired an organizer within hours of employees voting to unionize.
But the experience of being fired and fighting for his job back has taken a toll. He hasn’t had luck finding another job yet, and he recently applied for unemployment. “I’m out of health insurance because they fired me, so I had to get [on] Medicaid,” Locke said. “I have anxiety and depression and take medication, so that’s disrupting that whole process.”
“It’s turned my life upside down,” he added. “It feels isolating, but I’ve got friends. I’ve learned to change my life around a bit, I guess.”
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