NYC sues Starbucks for coffee chain’s firing of union organizer

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A cup of Starbucks coffee sits on a table in a cafe.

Joel Boh | Reuters

New York City is suing Starbucks over allegations that the company wrongfully terminated a barista and union organizer.

The city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection said the case marks its first lawsuit for a violation of New York City’s “just cause” protections for fast-food workers.

Austin Locke, a longtime barista and union organizer, was fired less than a month after he and his coworkers voted to unionize a Starbucks in Queens, according to the lawsuit. The store is one of dozens of Starbucks locations that have voted to unionize.

Starbucks had said that Locke was fired for failing to fill out a Covid-19 questionnaire and falsely reporting that a supervisor made physical contact with him, according to the city’s lawsuit. The missteps were reportedly confirmed by surveillance footage, but the suit states that Locke’s district and store manager did not let him see that footage. Locke’s shifts were canceled, and he filed a complaint to the city days later.

“We do not comment on pending litigation,” a Starbucks representative wrote to CNBC. “However, we do intend to defend against the alleged violations of the New York City Just Cause Law.”

Under the city’s Fair Workweek law, it is illegal to fire workers who have completed a 30 day probation or reduce their hours by more than 15% without just cause or an economic justification.

The city is suing to get Locke reinstated and to win him restitution and back pay, which the city says will continue to accrue until Locke returns to his job.

“It’s been a year since the campaign with Starbucks Workers United began at a Starbucks in Buffalo, NY,” said Austin Locke in a statement released by the city. “There are now 235 unionized Starbucks around the country. Starbucks continues to wrongfully fire pro-union workers nationwide in retaliation for union organizing.”

Starbucks has seen a wave of stores unionize across the country, and organizers have brought claims of retaliation by the company. Howard Schultz returned to the company as interim CEO amid the labor push, and has said he wants to reinvent the employee, customer and store experience to better reflect how the world has changed since the pandemic. The company named its new CEO on Thursday.

–CNBC’s Dan Mangan and Amelia Lucas contributed to this report.

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