Interview with Austin Locke from Starbucks Labor United

Stony Brook Worker Editorial & Austin Locke

SBW: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us about your experience working at Starbucks. You were illegally fired from the Starbucks Union at a Starbucks shop in Astoria. Can you introduce yourself and walk us through what happened?

Austin Locke: I’ve worked with Starbucks for six years and I’ve been a member of the Restaurant Workers Union for over a year. It’s a small, independent, democratic union in New York City. I’ve been working to unionize my shop and recently, we had a little crisis that we were able to use to our advantage. One day, there was a problem at the store and no one could reach management. It was then that people realized that we needed a union. I came in to work the next day ready to talk to everybody seriously about it. I was approached by one of my coworkers and she asked me if I knew anything about Starbucks Workers United. We exchanged information and had a nice conversation and then we just started talking to everybody. 

We collected a list of frustrations, grievances, and we tried to synthesize those into demands and then make it clear to everyone that the only way to solve these issues is with a union, and people got on board. They eventually wanted to go with Starbucks Workers United instead of Restaurant Workers Union, and we got most union cards signed. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) then went back and forth on our election date. We ended up having a mail-in ballot, which was a difficult process, but we won seven-to-four. Five days after we won the election, I was fired. Starbucks gave two completely bogus reasons: they said I falsely reported workplace violence, even though I had provided all the evidence and they refused to release the video footage; and then they used the fact that I once didn’t fill out our Covid-log —I had recorded my temperature and had no symptoms but forgot to sign — something other workers have forgotten before and were never disciplined for. It was clear that Starbucks was targeting me because I was the most public person with the union at that store. 

Since then we’ve had a rally, we’ve gone to different events, we’ve gotten awards. But we’re still going through the legal process to have me reinstated. Starbucks violated just cause law—a New York City law that requires a company to give just cause or a legitimate business reason to fire employees. In my case, Starbucks did not do this. But, even so, they can’t fire someone without bargaining. 

Starbucks Labor United Organizers

SBW: They basically saw you as the leader, as the public-facing figure in the unionization progress? Did they target anyone else or was it just you?

Austin Locke: No, just me. I was the only person in the media and in public and I’d been interviewed multiple times, so, they knew I was one of the main organizers. We tried to keep our leadership in the background so that they wouldn’t retaliate against a bunch of us.

SBW: Can you tell us about the status and process of the lawsuit?

Austin Locke: It’s filed with the Department of Consumer Workplace Protections; they deal with labor violations. The just cause law went into effect last year, so it’s new and the city wants to show that it’s effective. It’s still taking six or seven months to get me reinstated.

SBW: After you were fired, you said that you received awards and public support. Can you share a little bit about the kind of support that you received and the people who stood by you and continue to help you through this process?

Austin Locke: Immediately after I was fired, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) reached out to me and supported me. Even earlier, before we got all the workers on board for the union, we were in contact with the store right down the street from us that had already unionized. I’ve been in contact with them and they’ve been helping me get a union representative, to get all the resources and materials available. So, many organizations have reached out and given us support and have raised funds for other workers that have been fired. Members of SBWU, including me, accepted an award from Brandworkers, the Champions of Economic Justice Award. Luigi Morris and Left Voice have been very helpful and supportive. Jenna from the Independent, The Guardian, VICE, and more have interviewed me about being fired and the situation at my store.

Starbucks Labor United Demonstration

SBW: What were some of the challenges and anti-union activities you witnessed during your unionization process? What was Starbucks’s reaction when you first told them that you were unionizing, and how did they try to make this harder for you?

Austin Locke: We tried to keep it from the company until we went public, until we filed with the NLRB. Up until then they knew there were talks of unionization, but they didn’t know how serious it was. They were posting information on the wall that linked to anti-union websites from Starbucks with standard anti-union rhetoric. They were intentionally trying to misinform workers about unions, saying that the dues are going to affect your income and things like that. 

Once we solidified our demands, we posted them around the store. They stayed up for a little bit, but once management saw it, they took them down—they were trying everything in their power. 

SBW: Can you talk about the general conditions faced by Starbucks workers, either in your store or in the othes? What are the conditions that workers are fighting against and what are some of the core demands? 

Austin Locke: The main demands from our store is around scheduling and staffing, having enough people staffed and then also having people scheduled when they want to be scheduled. If they can’t work on a particular day, then they can’t work that day and Starbucks shouldn’t schedule them. Or if they want to work 40 hours, Starbucks shouldn’t give them only 30 hours. Even though we’re consistently short staffed and the labor is intensifying, they just continue to short staff us because they want to make as much money as possible. 

SBW: We are also curious about the relationship between your local Starbucks store and citywide and nationwide unionized Starbucks stores. Can you tell us what the relationship is, if there is one?

Austin Locke: We do have communication on a regional level. All the Starbucks shops in New York, which includes the five boroughs and the metro area, even some people from Long Island. We coordinate regional organizing committee meetings, and we have different committees for coming up with contract language. There’s leadership from the national union and all that stuff, but they definitely try to give workers as much range as possible.

SBW: The wave of Starbucks unionizations has received a lot of attention in the national labor movement in the US. What do you think prompted this wave and why was it so influential for so many other workers in other industries?

Austin Locke: Our generation has had all these promises made to them by the ruling class, their parents, higher education. We’ve been told to rack up debt to go to school, and then we’ll get a great job with a six-figure salary. And, on top of that, there’s a global economic crisis. I think the material conditions are mostly what’s catalyzed the latest labor movement.

SBW: Are there any lessons that you can share for labor organizers on our campus? Even though you’re in a very different industry, is there anything that you think will be valuable in our fight to improve our working conditions?

Austin Locke: I don’t know the specifics of Stony Brook, but I think the most important thing is listening to the workers, taking note of what their grievances are, and then synthesizing them and telling them, “Hey, this is how we have to go forward if we want to achieve these demands.” I think the most important thing is that, if you’re trying to organize people, you have to listen to them in order to help get them what they want. 

SBW: How can our readers support you and how can we develop a stronger labor solidarity between such different industries and workers? 

Austin Locke: I think the best way to build solidarity, to build a vibrant labor movement, is educating people. These labor issues are not limited to Starbucks, or to New York, or to Stony Brook; they are international problems, and the labor movement has to be international. It’s a lot worse in other places, but it’s also really terrible here in the United States. Unless we link those struggles, there will never be a resolution to these problems. 

SBW: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Austin Locke: I think we all need to read more, me included. Pick up a book, read about where you live, about the labor movement in the US to understand the problems affecting working people and then go out and do something.