One Friday in early March, Brian Nuzzo woke up to messages on his phone saying three of the baristas scheduled to work that morning at a Starbucks in Rochester weren’t coming in. As the shift supervisor with the keys to open the store, he had to figure out whether and how it would open.
Nuzzo arrived at the store fifteen minutes ahead of schedule “just to try and make a plan,” he said. He hunted down contact sheets and tried to figure out who could come in. He didn’t even punch in for most of that time, waiting until five minutes before his shift started at 5 a.m. The next worker punched in at 5. They worked without masks on, as they normally did, to get the store ready while the doors were still locked. The mask mandate for employees, after all, was ending soon.
Nuzzo had been made aware at some point that the company had a policy against employees being in stores alone, but it was never enforced. A coworker who lived far away would often get there early and go in before her shift rather than wait in the cold outside. Nuzzo himself had punched in earlier than other workers before. He also knew it was company policy that employees wear masks at work, but “it was never a thing before the doors were open,” he said.
But this time, Nuzzo was part of a nascent campaign to unionize Starbucks stores. His manager confronted him about the (five-minute) discrepancy in the time stamps, and higher-ups eventually looked at security cameras to determine that he had been in the building alone. A corporate employee, who had been sent to work at Nuzzo’s store while he was setting up without a mask on, said he had violated that policy, too.
“All these things that weren’t enforced before, they just bundled them all together,” Nuzzo said. Less than three weeks later, the corporate employee took him aside after his shift and told him he was terminated from Starbucks, effective immediately, for the violations. Starbucks didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“I never had been in trouble before,” Nuzzo said. He never missed a shift, even during Covid, and had over 250 hours of sick time saved up. “I was reliable, I was always there, I did everything that they asked me to do.”
Nuzzo’s was one of 280 unfair labor practice cases pending against Starbucks as of mid-August, filed by workers alleging the company violated their rights while they organized. Seventy-nine of them were filed by workers who were fired or not hired because they supported the union. This kind of retaliation is a common tactic: a 2009 analysis found that one-third of employers fired workers in unionization campaigns and about half threatened to cut wages and benefits. The same study found that employers threatened to shut down the “plants,” or places of employment, in 57 percent of campaigns, as has already happened in the case of Starbucks and other retail chains where workers have been organizing.
Many of the Starbucks firings are cases like Nuzzo’s, where workers technically violated rules that were arbitrarily enforced. Other companies have deployed the same gambit. Chris Smalls, the president of the Amazon Labor Union, was originally fired hours after a walkout protest for allegedly violating the company’s social distancing rules. Another Amazon organizer was fired for taking a Covid leave until April 29, which he said had been approved by an agent at Amazon’s employee resource center, when the company later claimed he was only allowed to be out until April 26.
These firings are a symptom of the larger disease: the enormous power employers hold over our lives, with few checks on how they choose to wield it. “To an astonishing degree, workers lose their freedom when they enter the worksite in the United States,” said Gabriel Winant, assistant history professor at the University of Chicago. In a survey of management experts in the late 1970s, every respondent agreed with the statement, “In many cases control and power are more important to managers than profits or productivity.”
“At work, employees enjoy few of the rights—privacy, free speech, due process—we take for granted elsewhere,” CUNY political science professor Corey Robin wrote in his 2004 book Fear: The History of a Political Idea. “For employees, that means that the bulk of their working hours are spent not in a liberal democracy.” Today’s workplace tyranny takes many forms. Surveillance of employees is on the rise, such as Amazon’s use of AI cameras in delivery vehicles to monitor drivers’ movements and biometric data. Mandatory drug testing is widespread, with nearly two-thirds of organizations saying they use drug and alcohol screening tests in the background check process, according to a 2018 report. Workers have even been fired for wearing clothes or masks with slogans their employers didn’t like. Their control reaches into our personal lives, too: 16 percent of American employees’ work schedules vary by week based on their employer’s needs.
Our regime of at-will employment means that employees can be fired for any reason except for a few narrow protections, such as discrimination or the right to organize—and to enforce those rights a worker has to file a legal claim. This means Americans can and have been fired, disciplined, or not hired for a long list of reasons, as outlined by Robin:
not smiling at work, smiling too much; not being friendly to my coworkers, being too friendly; demonstrating insufficient initiative, not being a team player; kowtowing to management, being insubordinate; being a leader, being a follower; braiding my hair in corn rows, wearing it straight; wearing long pants, wearing short pants; sporting an earring, refusing to do so; having a beard, shaving it off; fingernails too long, fingernails too short.
“The workplace in the United States has always been one of the most oppressive, authoritarian, undemocratic . . . institutions in American society,” Robin told me. That may be why many of us don’t think about democracy as applying to the workplace at all: for most, the concept means more or less the right to vote for people in one of two parties. But democracy also means having a say in the power structures that govern our lives, employment among them.
Until somewhat recently, the American workplace was in many ways “a feudal institution,” Robin said, governed by medieval common law. In the nineteenth and even early twentieth centuries, workers were barred from quitting unless they had proof of another job. They couldn’t get a new job without a testimonial from their previous employers. Vagrancy laws were aggressively enforced against people without work. These rules were given to judges, who tended to side with the interests of capital, to enforce, and workers’ rights were left up to their whims, particularly when the courts kept striking down lawmakers’ regulations. For instance, the Supreme Court deemed multiple laws banning “yellow-dog contracts”—which barred workers from joining unions—unconstitutional. This was the situation for supposedly free workers; the country was, of course, founded on the labor of slaves.
The Wagner Act of 1935 injected some democracy into the workplace, not just by paving a legal path toward unionization, which gave employees a literal voice on the job but also by successfully withstanding judicial scrutiny and finally giving elected lawmakers a say. The labor movement swelled in its wake.
But then Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, which narrowed who is covered by the Wagner Act, banned things like secondary boycotts and solidarity strikes, and allowed states more control over labor law—leading nearly thirty states to adopt right-to-work laws that hobble unions by allowing individual workers to opt out. While the labor movement reached 35 percent of all workers by 1960, the militancy of the 1930s faded away, and ever since the neoliberal turn of the 1980s, the movement has been in significant retreat. The number of American workers in unions has steadily fallen, such that the union membership rate in 2021 was only about 10 percent. Our labor laws are exceedingly undemocratic: a 2005 analysis by economist Gordon Lafer found that American labor laws governing union elections fail our country’s own standards for free and fair elections.
Cheap and Technically Legal
The antidemocratic workplace doesn’t just constrict workers’ lives when they’re on the clock. It affects all of us. “How the workplace is administered is oftentimes the canary in the coalmine,” Robin said. In other words, declining unionization goes hand in hand with declining democracy. Unions give people a community, a sense of solidarity, and get them to participate in political issues and debates. They prompt members to vote, and unions offer a countervailing check on the policy interests of corporations and the wealthy. Lower union density also correlates with more voting restrictions.
The antidemocratic workplace doesn’t just constrict workers’ lives when they’re on the clock. It affects all of us.
Gerrymandering, a dysfunctional and malapportioned Senate, a string of presidents who lost the popular vote but took power anyway, and an unaccountable Supreme Court going further and further off the rails mean that the will of the voters rarely gets done in Washington. It’s easy to feel like what you want doesn’t count. So why participate at all? Unions and their structure of direct democracy, on the other hand, give people the experience of taking part in governing the structures of their lives—which is especially meaningful given how much of our waking hours we spend at work. Without unions, our involvement and voice in civic life withers.
But the power that employers enjoy in their fiefdoms means they have a ready arsenal to use against union campaigns, which they are rarely afraid to deploy. Bosses can hold mandatory captive audience meetings where they inundate employees with anti-union propaganda, and the union is given no chance for a rebuttal. They can bar workers from talking about the union on the clock. They’ve been successful in preventing unions from even getting access to the workplace and the workers inside. And they always have the ultimate card to play: they hold employees’ livelihoods in their hands.
Losing his job meant Nuzzo lost his health insurance, which means he hasn’t been able to fill prescriptions, including an antidepressant, for months. He’s had to skip doctor’s appointments to monitor a heart issue that runs in his family and to get tested for sleep apnea. He’s put off getting his wisdom teeth removed. He eventually got a new job at a different cafe, but he won’t qualify for the health insurance right away, and he’s also had to take a pay cut. He had gotten a new car a month before getting fired on the assumption that he would have a steady income, and between that and other expenses, he had to spend through some of his savings. He cancelled a trip to see his family and go to his nephew’s high school graduation. “Especially the last two years, I haven’t seen my family much at all,” Nuzzo said.
It’s technically illegal to retaliate against workers for unionizing by reducing their pay, hours, or firing them, but it happens all the time. The main remedy a fired worker has is a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). And employers frequently defeat these claims by pointing to other reasons for firing someone—including company policy violations. “It’s easy for employers to . . . set workers up to fall short on some arbitrary measure of performance created in order to have a pretext to terminate them in a retaliatory fashion,” Winant said.
Even when workers succeed, employers will at most have to reinstate them and give them back pay, and the process can easily take years. Under current law, employers don’t have to face any punitive fines. Robin cites labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, who wrote that firing workers, even if it’s done illegally, “is absurdly cheap. Like jaywalking.” The math is clear. “Companies will often break the law deliberately expecting to lose the subsequent case, calculating that the rewards outweigh the consequences,” Winant said. A report published in 2019 by the Economic Policy Institute found that employers were charged with violating labor law in more than 40 percent of all union campaigns.
When a Firing Starts to Burn
Victoria Conklin started working at a Starbucks in a suburb of Buffalo during college and decided to stay on when she graduated in 2020. It was a job she liked, and she got promoted all the way from barista to shift supervisor. “When the union push started, I was actually a little anti-union princess. Corporate truly loved me,” she said. She thought that if corporate knew about problems with understaffing and overwork, they would get fixed.
But nothing ever got better, so she decided to try organizing a union. Things changed quickly. “It was a 180 from corporate. My manager wouldn’t even speak to me,” she said.
In late May, Conklin and her coworkers were short staffed for a closing shift after the manager sent by corporate decided to cut a person off the schedule. A bunch of kids from the nearby school had been ordering complicated drinks, which left little extra time for closing tasks like cleaning out every single station. They got out about a half hour later than they should have, and Conklin was scheduled to open the store the very next morning. When her alarm went off, she rolled over for five more minutes, only to be woken up by a call at 5:30 a.m. She flew to the store and was “very adamant,” she said, that she and her coworkers still opened the store on time at 6 a.m., even getting ahead of schedule by the next shift.
Just as employers wield their authoritarian might in the workplace against union campaigns, unions are an antidote to that unilateral power.
It was only the second time in five years that she had ever shown up late. “There’s not even a pattern of having attendance issues,” she said. But a little over a week later she led a walkout strike. Not long after that, Conklin was fired for being late that day in May. “It was very targeted,” she said. “The fact that I organized the store made me a target, and they needed something stupid to fire me for.”
“I’ve never been fired before. It was shocking,” she said. She went in the back of the store and cried, waiting until she was calm enough to be able to drive home. “It felt like asking for better for my coworkers and myself meant that I meant nothing to the company, even though I had given them five years of really hard work and the best of myself,” she said. “I’m simply asking them to do better by their partners. For that, they threw me aside like I meant nothing.”
Nuzzo worked at Starbucks for almost six years, and while he took the job originally because he was unemployed and it was the first offer he got, he also grew to like it. “They treated me mostly well over the years,” he said.
The desire to unionize emerged in the pandemic. “We started to see how much of a corporate entity Starbucks is,” Nuzzo said. Workers were called essential but didn’t feel protected. In the midst of the Delta wave in the summer of 2021, the company decided to open indoor seating back up. “They didn’t seem to care about us, it was more about their bottom line,” he said. The final straw for Conklin was when New York reinstated an indoor mask mandate in December, but employees were told they couldn’t tell customers to wear masks. “That is just so cruel,” she said. “You’re asking us to go to work every day and put our health at risk.”
Still, unionizing isn’t an act of revenge for a difficult few years. Nuzzo said it’s for the very fact that he liked his job that he got involved. “A lot of people think, ‘Well if you hate the job why don’t you just leave?’” he said. “A lot of us don’t hate the job. We just want to be treated better.”
Just as employers wield their authoritarian might in the workplace against union campaigns, unions are an antidote to that unilateral power. “When a union wins recognition and negotiates a contract, it changes these dynamics in profound ways,” Winant said. A union contract sets out the terms and conditions of employment with workers’ input, including wage floors, raise schedules, and benefits. Workers elect shop stewards to enforce the contact and to attend management’s disciplinary meetings alongside workers. Contracts typically ensure things like grievance procedures when managers act in corrupt or unfair ways, as well as just cause provisions requiring employers to have a good reason for firing employees.
“A union is a sine qua non of having more democracy in the workplace,” Robin said. “The promise of unions is you have power.” A union is the vehicle through which workers can have any say over the terms and conditions of their work. At its best, it is also a deeply democratic institution, financed by its members and lead by people elected from the rank-and-file.
But, of course, that power has to be exercised and not squashed, and without more robust labor laws employers are able marshal the worst excesses of their accumulated authoritarian power against burgeoning campaigns. Starbucks workers may have unionized over 150 stores, but none have a contract yet. Forcing the company to negotiate and to make concessions will require more show of force against a hostile corporate entity. More workers will almost certainly lose their jobs—though there are hopeful signs too. A federal judge ruled in August that Starbucks must reinstate seven baristas in Memphis who were fired after publicly discussing their union campaign.
Nuzzo contends that Starbucks’s union-busting is only working against it. When corporate employees started to flood his store to try to head off a union campaign, “If anything, it kind of made us want to do it even more,” he said. Even his termination seemed to backfire. It happened a few weeks before their union vote, and in the end, the union won ten to three. “It lit the fire,” he said. It reminded people of the stakes: without a union, no one was protected from being arbitrarily let go.
“The more they try to stop it, the more they keep digging their own graves,” he said. “It’s just our generation, my generation and younger generations. You tell us not to do something, it’s like, ‘You know what, screw you, we’re going to do it.’”