On Friday, over 100 rowdy union advocates showed strong support for six workers — Austin Locke, Sam Heyne, Tristan Dutchin, Gerald Bryson and Jordan Flowers — who shared stories of being fired for unionization efforts. Amazon Labor Union (ALU) and OPEIU-153 held a solidarity rally with Starbucks Workers United (SWU) in response to aggressive union busting from Starbucks, Amazon and the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-rights research non-profit.
“Struggle is inseparable from our lives. The point of this fight is not to erase struggle, but to have our struggle met with reward rather than more struggle,” said President of New York Cannabis Workers Union Zakaria Khafagy, a speaker at the rally.
“I was the only public supporter of the union. The names are all on the list but I was the only one going out talking to groups and the media,” said recently fired worker-organizer Austin Locke.
Protesters gathered outside of the Starbucks at Ditmars Blvd and 31 St. Street in Astoria, was chosen to show Starbucks managers that Locke, a former barista at the cafe, will continue to protest his illegal firing on July 5. The SWU, ALU and OPEIU-153 were joined by members of the Restaurant Workers Union, New York Cannabis Workers Union, New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE) and a variety of local socialist and communist groups.
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The rally began as advocates marched in a looping picket line in front of the store chanting, ‘What’s disgusting? Union Busting!’ and holding signs that read, ‘An Injury to One is An Injury to All!’, and ‘We Need a Real Right to Unionize!’ A few minutes later, police showed up and instructed protesters to not block the entrance to Starbucks and other stores.
Locke was the first speaker to share his perspective. He shared his own story, then shone a light on other exploited workers, like farm workers in Asia, Africa and Latin America, who pick beans for only a dollar a day. “I’m not only here to highlight my struggle at Starbucks. Starbucks workers are just one link in a whole chain of production that extends across the globe,” said Locke, who’s goal, along with his many supporters, is to be reinstated as a barista.
Employees at the Ditmars Blvd. Starbucks won their union election in a 7-4 vote on June 30. Just five days later, Locke — one of the lead SWU organizer-workers in the city, who had been working at Starbucks for nearly six years — was served a “notice of separation” and escorted out of the building by police. The notice, signed by Starbucks District Manager Kristina Freeman and store manager Nicole Gilbert, stated that Locke made a false claim of workplace violence and violated Starbucks’ health and safety standards.
On June 6 Locke called out of work sick because he was experiencing flu-like symptoms and worried he might be infected with COVID-19. He tested negative and returned to work two days later. Locke says he was told to use an iPad to complete a COVID symptom check-in but it didn’t work so he started working. As the store got busier, he walked towards the back room to ask for help but was stopped by a coworker who Locke says put his hands his chest. Locke told The Indypendent that he felt uncomfortable with the physical interaction and reported the incident to Freeman and human resources. He was sent home later that day. He believes he was targeted because of his role as the main organizer of the shop’s unionization efforts. “I was the only public supporter of the union. The names are all on the list but I was the only one going out talking to groups and the media,” said Locke.
In similar tactics, Amazon fired worker-organizers Bryson, Flowers and Dutchin among others during the unionization campaign at JFK8, Amazon’s largest warehouse in Staten Island. The ALU’s grassroots, worker-led movement succeeded in winning the first union election at a U.S. Amazon warehouse on April 1. In March 2020, Flowers was suspended from JFK8 for protesting Amazon’s unsafe working conditions under COVID while he awaited a life-saving kidney transplant. Around the same time, Bryson and ALU President Christian Smalls were also fired.
On May 7, Dutchin was let go. The ALU maintains this was an illegal firing in retalliation for union organizing. This came just after worker-organizers Sharon Bogat-Weathley and Pasquale “Pat” Cioffi were fired from JFK8 over the past two months. Dutchin spoke to the group of unionists, socialists and the like about struggles he’s faced since being fired, but still has a deep faith in the union fight. “Our union is a lion. Roar for victory,” he wrote to The Indy after the rally.
Recently, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) concluded that Amazon broke federal law by holding mandatory anti-union trainings where union busters threatened and lied to workers in Staten Island. Starbucks and Amazon have faced repercussions from the NLRB, but the board has little teeth in enforcing already-weak labor law.
Since the JFK8 win, dozens of Amazon warehouses across the country have indicated they are interested in unionizing despite the company’s fierce opposition to worker empowerment (it is currently in the process of trying to overturn the JFK8 election results). Union campaigns have recently launched in Albany; Garner, North Carolina; and Campbellsville, Kentucky. And, even though Starbucks has fired over 50 worker-organizers, 316 stores in 36 states have filed to unionize. So far, 201 stores in 32 states have won union elections and just 40 have lost an election.
Jenny Sherman, an editor at the Guttmacher Institute, where workers won a union election on July 12, also attended the rally. Sherman told The Indypendent that she feels disappointed in management, stating, “Our hopes for our management were dashed. We’ve tried every single opportunity to make things better but the channels that were provided to us, failed us. The channels that are in place are not set up to protect workers. They are there to protect management.” The Guttmacher Institute is a research and policy organization that focuses sexual and reproductive rights education.
Sam Heyne, a union organizer and former learning and development specialist at the institute, was fired just one hour after 97% of employees voted to unionize. Sherman says that when Heyne was being fired, she asked for a union representative to join the meeting but the request was ignored by management. Sherman added, “What happened to Sam was disgusting.” Heyne planned on attending the rally but tested positive for COVID just before the rally began.
Jackson Lewis, a leading union-busting law firm that Guttmacher hired, made campaign donations to anti-choice politicians such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who recently suggested Republicans propose federal legislation banning abortion. It donated the maximum amount of $5,000 to the 2020 National Republican Congressional Committee that elected notoriously anti-choice representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and more. “It’s pretty indicative of a general problem as it relates to a new energetic labor movement finding its voice,” David Hodges, a representative at OPEIU-153, told The Indy. “Employers tend to put their own power and their position in their towers above even the ideologies that their organizations purport to advocate for. Guttmacher is supposed to be a reproductive rights research hub — which is the product of the workers in that organization. Management is putting union busting above the hugely important advocacy Guttmacher is meant to advance.”
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“The future is ours to take,” championed Executive Director of NICE Diana Moreno to Friday’s cheering crowd. “Billionaires’ days are counted…We’re coming after you, Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, Elon Musk. The world is ours to take back! Stop stealing our labor; stop stealing our wages; stop stealing our planet! The future is bright if we organize, comrades!”
Brandi Alduk, a union advocate and Starbucks barista at Astoria Blvd. and 31st St., concluded the rally by pointing out that the most important part of organizing a union is making connections with community members to, ultimately, make a positive change in the world. She invited everyone to Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden to connect with one another.
Amba Guerguerian contributed reporting.
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