In a few days Austin Locke will walk back into the Queens, New York, Starbucks store he was fired from seven months ago. He’ll also get a wad of back pay, and money from civil penalties.
Locke had a target on his back because he was involved in a union drive at the store, but his reinstatement didn’t come from the National Labor Relations Board. Instead, his case was taken up by the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP), under a city law passed in 2021 which makes unjust firings in fast food illegal.
Two recent city laws protecting fast food workers, the 2017 Fair Workweek Law and the 2021 Just Cause law, have resulted in 230 investigations, resulting in nearly $27.1 million in combined fines and restitution for more than 20,100 workers, according to Michael Lanza of the DCWP. Chipotle paid $20 million in September.
Now the city council is considering extending this just-cause protection to all New Yorkers through the Secure Jobs Act.
In Illinois, a coalition of unions and worker centers is lobbying for a similar law statewide. The proposed laws also provide for severance pay for layoffs.
Most U.S. workers not covered by union contracts are considered “at-will employees,” meaning they can be fired for almost any reason.
There are some important exceptions: It’s already illegal to fire someone for racist, sexist, or ageist reasons. Labor law also bars employers from firing workers for engaging in “concerted activity,” meaning getting together with co-workers to improve job conditions. But it’s hard to prove intent when a manager can legally fire you because he doesn’t like your hairstyle or your attitude.
With just cause laws, which require a due process for terminations, “the U.S. would just be catching up with the rest of the world,” said Paul Sonn of the National Employment Law Project. “In many Canadian provinces, the U.K., Mexico, Colombia, there are systems where you need to be given a good reason and advance notice, and typically guaranteed severance pay.”
In surveys conducted by NELP, two-thirds of Americans think there should be similar laws protecting workers.
If properly enforced, just cause protections would give all workers more security to stand up to dangerous working conditions, sexual harassment, bullying, speed-up, and wage theft.
But the New York City law indicates it could help workers who want a union, too. “It’s helpful,” said Locke. “You need to use every sort of avenue you can to fight these companies.”
Locke was fired for falsely reporting workplace violence and for missing part of a multipart Covid screening protocol. Video vindicated him on the first charge and the second had been breached regularly with no repercussions except in his case.
The complaint process was simple. He said he filed paperwork and the city did the rest. Starbucks eventually settled, but not before trying to place Locke at another store. He refused. An NLRB case challenging his firing was dropped as part of the settlement.
A Firing Strategy
Starbucks management has fired 200 workers in the course of an organizing wave that started in Buffalo, New York, in December 2021. So far workers have filed for union recognition in 360 stores and won in 285.
Starbucks didn’t start firing workers right away, according to Casey Moore, a Buffalo barista who now works for Workers United, the division of the Service Employees (SEIU) backing the campaign.
But three months into the union wave, she said, corporate managers realized, “‘Oh, crap, we have a big problem here,’ and they did some calculus where they said, ‘Well, we’re going to fire these workers. We might face legal repercussions, but those aren’t as bad as the benefit from scaring workers.’”
On February 8, 2022 Starbucks managers in Memphis, Tennessee, called seven workers in to individual meetings and fired them all on various pretexts, one of which was that they had held a press conference in the store.
Beto Sanchez, one of the 7, said he was additionally told he was being fired for failing to wear a mask while off-duty—although the rule they cited only required masks while working.
The Memphis workers had gone public with their union drive three weeks earlier, on Martin Luther King Day. The firings were designed to halt the drive by removing the majority of the organizing committee.
But it didn’t work. Although Starbucks hired a bunch of new people in, they still voted for the union, which won overwhelmingly.
“It backfired on them completely,” said Sanchez, a shift manager. “Starbucks was hoping to use our firings as a way to squash the fire, to scare people from organizing, but instead it fired people up to organize even more.”
Soon after the 7 were terminated, Sanchez said, they saw photos of workers in faraway stores marching on the boss or walking out on strike holding “Reinstate the Memphis 7” signs.
Other firings took place after union votes, whether the union won or not. Victoria Conklin, a shift supervisor at the East Robinson store in Buffalo, was fired on June 22, a week after her store voted to unionize. She led a walkout one morning when six co-workers called out due to Covid. At first her manager had allowed them to close the store, but then he backtracked and required them to fill mobile orders.
Managers claimed Conklin was fired for being 30 minutes late, once, weeks earlier. She was late, she said, because she was exhausted from working too many early shifts and clopenings (closing at night and then opening in the morning). She had repeatedly asked for a different schedule and been denied.
Conklin expects an NLRB hearing in mid-April, nine months after her firing. The delays are because Starbucks is “fighting us every step of the way,” Moore said.
One Mile Out
Joselyn Chuquillanqui is still waiting for justice, too. She was fired July 27, three weeks after Locke, because she was a leader in the organizing effort at her Starbucks store in Great Neck, just outside New York City. “Even one more mile in, I would have had just cause to protect me,” she noted.
The whole Great Neck store signed union cards and they went public in February 2022. But after management conducted a ferocious anti-union campaign, the union lost by one vote. After that, “I had known [my manager] was trying to fire me and was just waiting for an opportunity,” Chuquillanqui said. She was eventually fired for losing her key (she reported it and followed protocol) and for being a few minutes late.
The NLRB process is cumbersome and only works if workers can prove they were fired for taking collective action. It also depends on judges who may identify with management. And unlike the New York City law, there is no provision for punitive damages against outlaw employers, only back pay.
Starbucks also regularly opposes fired workers’ unemployment claims. Chuquillanqui had to fight to get her unemployment checks. “Starbucks tried to appeal twice,” she said. “They were just trying to run me dry with my resources.” She finally won her claim.
Conklin appealed a negative unemployment decision and eventually won, too. But Sanchez said Starbucks blocked the Memphis 7 from receiving unemployment compensation.
Origins in Fight for $15
The Just Cause law in New York was championed by SEIU and followed logically from the Fight for $15. Fast food companies in New York City are now required to pay $15 an hour, but they still inflict unstable schedules on their workers, negating the benefits of higher pay.
To curb abuses, SEIU mega-local 32BJ worked with fast food workers to pass a city Fair Workweek Law in 2017, which requires two weeks’ advance notice of schedule changes and premium pay when there are violations. Similar laws are in force in San Francisco and Seattle.
Fair Workweek posters are required in every fast food joint. Locke said his managers “hoped nobody reads the poster.” He pointed it out to co-workers, but even with the premium pay schedule listed in black and white, it was another matter to get management to pay up.
This article was originally published by Labor Notes.
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