The Union-Busting Crime Wave at Starbucks and Amazon Is Getting Worse

Starbucks and Amazon are running parallel union-busting campaigns across the country, willfully violating labor law in a desperate attempt to defeat nascent worker organizing in their companies.

People march during the "Fight Starbucks' Union Busting" rally and march in Seattle, Washington on April 23, 2022. (Jason Redmond / AFP via Getty Images)

The two highest-profile union drives in the United States are currently weathering an onslaught of union-busting, some of it illegal. Starbucks has been retaliating against union organizers at stores across the country, firing workers and otherwise working to isolate, demoralize, and defeat the baristas who are dead set on unionizing the company’s 8,900 US corporate-owned stores.

At Amazon, similar dynamics are unfolding. At JFK8, the first Amazon fulfillment center to go union, the company has fired two organizers from the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), Tristan Dutchin and Mat Cusick. Amazon says Dutchin was terminated for falling behind on productivity quotas, while Cusick has been given mixed messages for his termination — ALU’s communications lead was on a COVID-related leave when he was terminated for “voluntary resignation due to job abandonment,” as Vice reports.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has now found merit in allegations by workers at both companies that their firings constitute violations of labor law. On May 10, the NLRB filed for injunctive relief for seven Starbucks employees in Memphis, Tennessee, known as the Memphis Seven, who were fired shortly after announcing their union campaign. On May 11, the board issued a complaint against Starbucks over the firing of several workers in Overland Park, Kansas, in the week leading up to their store’s union election. These complaints come on the heels of a previous case that resulted in the first NLRB complaint against Starbucks to come during the current Starbucks Workers United (SWU) organizing drive. That complaint concerns Laila Dalton, who Starbucks fired on April 4, just weeks after the NLRB substantiated her complaint about prior retaliation.

Concerning Amazon, the NLRB has sued the company over the firing of JFK8 worker Gerald Bryson. That termination occurred two years ago, shortly after he participated in a protest over the company’s inadequate COVID-19 precautions. Chris Smalls, ALU’s president, was also fired following the protest, which led him to launch the historic union drive. Bryson, meanwhile, has been fighting for reinstatement ever since — after a judge ruled on April 18 that Amazon must reinstate Bryson and pay wages lost, the company vowed to appeal the decision.

The board previously found merit to allegations from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) that Amazon interfered in the “laboratory conditions” required during a union election in the case of its Bessemer, Alabama, fulfillment center. That finding led to the rerun union vote that concluded last month. While Amazon is up significantly in the vote tally so far, the result cannot be determined until the board goes through the 416 challenged ballots. A date for such a count has yet to be determined.

If all this sounds like a lot to keep track of, that’s because it is. The NLRB’s complaint against Starbucks accuses the company of twenty-nine unfair labor practice (ULP) charges that include more than two hundred violations of the National Labor Relations Act. In total, SWU has filed more than 120 ULP charges against the company, spanning nineteen states (Starbucks has in turn filed two complaints against SWU, alleging intimidation). At Amazon, the ALU has filed dozens of ULP charges over Amazon’s behavior at JFK8 and LDJ5, the Staten Island sorting center where Amazon just defeated a unionization attempt. Worker organizing at these two companies, as well as a nascent uptick elsewhere, have meant that the board has seen a 14 percent increase in ULP charges in the first six months of fiscal year 2022 (October 1 to March 31) compared with the previous year, as well as a 57 percent increase in union petition filings.

The NLRB is more pro-worker than it has been in nearly a century, helmed by general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, who is determined to lead the board to carry out its duty of enforcing existing labor law. But it remains drastically underfunded and understaffed: the board’s budget has remained the same for nine years, amounting in real dollars to a 25 percent budget cut, and its overall staffing is down 30 percent since 2010. While Joe Biden has requested Congress provide $319 million for the NLRB in 2023, which would be a 16 percent increase, a group of 149 House Democrats are calling for $368 million in funding, equivalent to a 34 percent increase.

If the NLRB is to have any hope of keeping up with the increased labor movement activity, it must have such funding, and the increased staffing that follows from it. Such is the means for it to enforce potential impending rulings that find captive-audience meetings illegal, and to stay on top of the war against Amazon and Starbucks workers, not to mention workers at smaller companies.

Speaking on a panel in New York City on Tuesday evening, Jaz Brisack, a Starbucks organizer in Buffalo, New York, noted that even the proactive NLRB could do more. One particularly pressing matter is employers’ say in proposed bargaining units. A Trump-era board ruling currently allows employers to have greater input in the process of determining an appropriate bargaining unit, a tool of which both companies have availed themselves. Starbucks is challenging stores as they file over the question of appropriate bargaining units, slowing the unionization process significantly in the hopes of defeating workers’ nationwide momentum.

There is so much work to do, and little time to do it. The labor market is not likely to remain so tight for much longer, nor should anyone count on the NLRB remaining committed to enforcing the law for the long haul. Starbucks continues to openly violate labor laws — see its latest corrosive move of promising benefits only to stores that do not unionize. And Amazon is gearing up to terminate more union leaders — not only Dutchin and Cusick at JFK8 but Ezra Hudson in Bessemer (and rumors abound of union supporters receiving final written warnings and suspensions at other facilities). Such a crime wave amounts to open warfare on workers.

“We are getting a first contract,” said Smalls on the Tuesday evening panel with Brisack. “I may not know how, or when, but we will get it.” He and his fellow workers at Amazon and Starbucks are up against corporations that will do everything in their power to break that determination and momentum. There is always a class war, but these campaigns are a long-overdue offensive by the working class, and it will be a blow for all of us if they do not succeed.