New York City sues Starbucks over firing of unionizing barista

A Starbucks spokesperson said it will "defend against this alleged violation."

September 2, 2022, 2:26 PM

New York City is suing Starbucks over allegations the coffee corporation unlawfully fired a Queens barista who had been involved in unionization efforts, a city agency announced Friday.

The lawsuit marks the latest in a string of legal disputes over the termination of unionizing Starbucks workers as hundreds of Starbucks stores nationwide have voted to unionize since an initial union victory at a store in Buffalo, New York, last December.

The lawsuit in New York City alleges that Starbucks wrongfully fired worker and union organizer Austin Locke in early July, less than a month after employees at the store where he worked voted to join a union.

Starbucks violated the city's "just cause" protections, enacted last year, which make it illegal for fast food employers to fire or lay off long-serving workers, or reduce their hours by more than 15 percent, without providing just cause or an economic reason, the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, or DCWP, claimed Friday.

In mid-July, the DCWP received a complaint from Locke alleging that Starbucks had illegally fired him, which the agency quickly investigated, a statement from the agency on Friday said.

The records and information Starbucks provided during the investigation did not refute or mitigate the agency's determination that Starbucks illegally fired him, the DCWP added.

PHOTO: Customers eat and drink in a Starbucks Coffee shop in New York City.
Customers eat and drink in a Starbucks Coffee shop in New York City.
Robert Alexander/Getty Images, FILE

DCWP is seeking an order requiring that Starbucks reinstate Locke and rescind the discipline issued to him, as well as provide back pay and other compensation for lost work, the statement said. Starbucks should also pay civil penalties and comply with the law going forward, the statement said.

"There are now 235 unionized Starbucks around the country," Locke said in a statement. "Starbucks continues to wrongfully fire pro-union workers nationwide in retaliation for union organizing."

In response to the lawsuit, a Starbucks spokesperson told ABC News: "We do not comment on pending litigation but we do intend to defend against this alleged violation of the city's Just Cause law."

The lawsuit in New York City follows other legal challenges to Starbucks over its treatment of unionizing employees. Last month, a federal judge called for the immediate reinstatement of seven baristas at a store in Memphis, who were terminated in February after talking to a local TV station about their organizing drive.

Federal labor regulators last week filed a complaint that accused Starbucks of illegally discriminating against unionized employees by refusing to provide increases in wages and benefits that the company offered to nonunion workers.

In a response last week, Starbucks said it cannot raise wages and benefits for unionized workers because federal law requires the company to negotiate such terms of employment with the union at stores where workers have opted to join one. "Wages and benefits are mandatory subjects of the collective bargaining process," Starbucks said in a statement.

In New York City, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, a Democrat, applauded the city's lawsuit on Friday.

"Protecting workers' rights to organize and unionize is critical, and employers who try to undermine and violate those rights must be held accountable," she said in a statement.

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