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Queens vs. Long Island: A Tale of Two Union Organizers

Issue 278

A fired Starbucks union organizer got his job back (with $17K in backpay) thanks to a new city law that protects fast food workers. Another wasn't so lucky.

Katie Pruden Mar 20, 2023

Joselyn Chuquillanqui and Austin Locke both worked at Starbucks until July 2022, Chuquillanqui in Great Neck, Long Island, and Locke in Astoria, Queens. The two were lead organizers for the Starbucks Workers United union in their stores and were fired during a company union-busting campaign. 

Locke returned to work in early March after being reinstated with back pay. 

Chuquillanqui is still waiting for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to act on her complaint that she was illegally fired. The difference is where they worked. 

Locke was the first person to get reinstated under New York City’s “just cause” legislation, enacted in July 2021, which makes it illegal for food-franchise employers to fire workers without a legitimate reason and evidence. Enforced by the city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP), it covers the 67,000 fast food workers in the city, including those at the 241 Starbucks stores who previously were employed with no protection from unjust firing or last-minute schedule changes. 

Most workers in the city, the rest of the state and nationwide are employed “at will,” which means that unless they have protections from a union contract, they can be fired at any time for any or no reason. If they believe they were terminated for an illegal reason, such as discrimination or retaliation for union activity, their only redress is the courts or the NLRB. 

Working in Nassau County just a mile east of the city line, Joselyn Chuquillanqui was an at-will employee not covered by the just-cause law.

More than 30 community and labor organizations are backing the Secure Jobs Act, legislation proposed by City Councilmember Tiffany Cabán (D-Astoria) that would extend just cause job protections to all workers in New York City. As The Indypendent goes to press, the measure has 10 co-sponsors in addition to Cabán, far short of what it would need to pass the 51-member Council. 

Montana is the only state that has a just-cause law, although the state does not directly enforce it. “Individuals who feel aggrieved by their termination must seek civil redress through the courts,” the state Department of Labor and Industry says.

Starbucks claimed it fired Locke for falsely reporting workplace violence and failing to file a COVID-19 log. The DCWP, however, subpoenaed video footage of the incident, and it showed another worker putting his hands on Locke. Starbucks agreed to give him his job back and $17,000 (before taxes) in back pay and a small raise. 

“If I decided to give up, the workers there would have seen that as a victory for Starbucks, and me coming back is proof that Starbucks can’t mess around with us,” Locke The Indy. He would have liked the settlement to have imposed more responsibility on Starbucks, though. 

“The settlement has no admission of guilt, so they didn’t have to post a letter in the store, they didn’t have to read us our rights or anything. They just had to reinstate me with back pay and damages,” he said. 

 While the city’s just-cause law put into place a good legal framework to limit the power of employers, what the law can do is still limited.

“Just cause does not take away the need for people to want to unionize. People unionize because they want a voice. They don’t want to be told what to do by these employers that think they are God’s gift to Earth,” said Seth Goldstein, a lawyer for the Amazon Labor Union (ALU).

Goldstein began working for the ALU pro bono, filing unfair-labor-practice complaints against Amazon while the union was organizing at the company’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island. The ALU won an election there in April 2022, and Goldstein went on to lead a team of over 100 law-student volunteers across the country. He now works for the firm that represents the union full-time. 

“The union is about a collective spirit of demanding what is right,” he said. “While it’s nice to have that provision, I also think the people are going to get used to those benefits, and they’ll want a union because they realize now that they have rights.”

Courtesy

Chuquillanqui, working in Nassau County just a mile east of the city line, was an at-will employee not covered by the just-cause law. She had to file her complaint that she was illegally fired with the NLRB. 

“If I worked one mile closer to Queens, I would have been protected under the law. By a mile I missed it,” she said. “Just-cause laws are not for us. Hopefully one day soon they will be.”

Starbucks fired Chuquillanqui three months after Starbucks Workers United lost the vote to unionize at the Great Neck store. She had created an organizing committee, and all 15 workers had signed union cards. In February 2022, her store and four in the city went public with their campaigns and filed for a union election. 

“After that happened, it was just intense union-busting from upper management,” said Chuquillanqui. “They would try to single people out and pick at their vulnerabilities. They would threaten benefits. They would find things that made people nervous. The only reason I was able to survive that time without quitting was that I was confident in my initial decision to unionize and I still don’t regret it. My opinion hasn’t changed.” 

The union lost the election by one vote, 6-5. Starbucks claimed Chuquillanqui was terminated for lateness, but she believed that it was illegal retaliation for her union activity, and that the election had been tainted by union busting, so she filed a complaint with the NLRB. 

On Nov. 30, the NLRB’s Brooklyn regional director asked a federal court for an injunction to order Starbucks to stop unfair labor practices at the Great Neck store. 

Eight months after she was fired, Chuquillanqui is still waiting for justice. 

“There were times when I felt like I was extremely vilified and that I was this horrible, toxic person, or, that’s what Starbucks made me out to be,” she says. “But I would have support from the customers and other coworkers, and it was really validating that I was doing this for a good reason.” 

She now works as a teacher’s assistant at a school in Long Island. If the NLRB orders Starbucks to reinstate her, she would only be able to work there part-time. 

Chuquillanqui is one of many workers trying to get their jobs back after a wave of union-busting terminations at Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and Amazon. Without a union, workers outside the food-service industry in New York City have no just-cause protections, says Goldstein.

“Amazon is a battle, and not one thing is going to declare victory,” he adds. “But, when we are proactive and we do things like this, it shines a bad light on Amazon. In the last two years as a result of what we’re doing, there’s been more pressure on Amazon than ever. Just like with Starbucks.”

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