via Jacobin, February 19, 2023
A Queens Starbucks worker was one of many across the country fired in retaliation for union organizing. Thanks to NYC laws that require due process for firing fast-food workers, he was reinstated.
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 (NLRB). 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 legislation, 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 US 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 agist reasons. Labor law also bars employers from firing workers for engaging in “concerted activity,” meaning getting together with coworkers 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 US would just be catching up with the rest of the world,” said Paul Sonn of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). “In many Canadian provinces, the UK, 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.