Brian Nuzzo showed up early to work one March morning, a decision that cost him his job as Starbucks shift supervisor and a ban from the coffee chain.
Unlike three other employees, who are called partners at Starbucks, he did not call in sick that day. To get a jump on planning around the absences, he entered the store on his own, against Starbucks policy. The rule is in place for security reasons, Starbucks officials say.
A lengthy investigation ensued, complete with pulled security tapes and discussions between the store and district manager. In all that time, Nuzzo says, he was given a chance to explain his actions only once, through an email.
With nearly 15 years of Starbucks work experience between them, Nuzzo and fellow shift supervisors Hayleigh Fagan and Michaela Wagstaff say Nuzzo was caught up in a rule they had never seen enforced. A Starbucks spokesperson in Albany declined to comment on any local incidents.
However, during the first three months of 2022, Nuzzo and the others played an active role in unionizing their store on Monroe Avenue, in the former Clover Plaza. Their push came amid a boom in union filings across Starbucks cafés nationwide, and they made national headlines alongside workers at Starbuck’s Mt. Hope Avenue location when their efforts proved successful in early April.
“Is it a coincidence that I was one of the head union organizers? Maybe, but I don’t think so,” Nuzzo says.
News of successful petitions and votes have overshadowed stories like Nuzzo’s about the anti-union behavior by the company’s leadership that employees have faced. As a unionization wave grows locally and nationally, researchers and on-the-ground workers think more of these challenges are on the horizon. Organizing efforts have taken hold at other large businesses like Apple and Amazon and the National Labor Relations Board reported a 57 percent increase in filings nationwide during the first half of fiscal year 2022 compared with the same period a year earlier.
Unionizing on the rise
According to employees at the Rochester stores, the anti-union rhetoric and tactics by Starbucks really started after workers in Buffalo and Hamburg filed for elections in August, which kicked off the ongoing nationwide filing surge. Filing actions by Starbucks-affiliated workers have spiked in recent months, rising from four filings in December 2021 to 119 in March.
“There has been a tightening of the labor market. It’s given workers much more leverage. It’s released them from the pressure of getting fired,” explains Cathy Creighton, a researcher at Cornell University’s ILR School who studies policy effects on workers. “Why worry about being fired from a crappy job when there are so many other openings?
“Essential workers were putting their lives at risk (during the COVID-19 pandemic). And I think seeing what was happening made them angry,” Creighton adds.“‘Why is Starbucks or Amazon recording record profits and I’m not sharing in that?’”
“Getting called essential without being considered essential for the past two years made a lot of things click into place for me,” says Nuzzo. “We did get hazard pay at the beginning, but that lasted for only a couple months. After the Delta variant spiked, Starbucks opened stores for indoor seating, without giving us a say. We’re the ones at risk.”
Since January 2019, of the total union representation petitions filed for Starbucks cafes and roasteries, 87 percent remain open. Of the closed filings, 34 percent resulted in the certification of a union representative, while the others were dismissed or withdrawn.
Creighton says that, in the case of unionization efforts, time is on the side of employers, who often will challenge each step of the process.
As an example, she cites Ithaca, where Starbucks requested to use multi-location units for the union vote instead of single-store bargaining units, in an attempt to widen the eligible voter pool and prevent a successful union vote. In a similar vein, Fagan says there was an attempt to include part-time workers in the Clover-Monroe unionization decision in an effort to pack the vote.
“(Employers) know they’ll lose the argument, there’s been years of precedent set about this. It’s a delaying tactic,” Creighton says. “While they’re doing this, they’re hammering their workers with surveillance and intimidation. People can just lose enthusiasm or the will after the constant breathing down their necks.”
In an April blog post, Starbucks interim CEO Howard Schultz expressed a desire to have a constructive dialog with Starbucks employees, but cautioned against “the different vision being put forward by union organizers at some Starbucks stores.”
“And while not all the partners supporting unionization are colluding with outside union forces, the critical point is that I do not believe conflict, division and dissension—which has been a focus of union organizing—benefits Starbucks or our partners,” Schultz wrote.
‘They were just watching us all day’
Fagan says Area Operations Manager Trista Simmers was carrying out her routine of checking workers’ time cards when she first took notice of Nuzzo clocking in alone.
Simmers also wrote him up for having his mask pulled down alongside other workers, all fully vaccinated, before the store was open in a separate incident. Wagstaff says this was roughly four days before the company lifted its masking policy.
It was Marcus Rainford, manager of operations and continuous improvement at the company, who told Nuzzo that he was fired. Rainford came from California under the stated goal of improving store efficiency, but the organizers say he and other corporate managers like Simmers periodically came into the store to surveil workers and counter union messaging.
Rainford’s and Simmers’ arrival was before the Brighton café workers decided to organize, but Fagan says their presence was preemptive.
“They were also watching us while corporate was in Buffalo,” she says. “Like, they had us flagged as an area that might potentially try to organize, so there were a lot of support managers coming into our stores being like, ‘What can we do to help you?’”
The managers posed lots of questions to the workers about their experiences at the company. At one point during this period, Wagstaff, having been scheduled to work 13 shifts in a row without time off, was brought to tears when Simmers asked what she thought her coworkers said about her when she wasn’t around. She first wondered whether her coworkers were talking about her behind her back, but Simmers clarified that her colleagues expressed positive feelings about her.
“That made me really emotional because I had been working so many days in a row and it was really good to hear that my team was behind me,” Wagstaff recounts. “I started to get teary-eyed, and she’s like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And so I mentioned my predicament and she was like, ‘We’re going to get you help, we’re going to make sure that you’re supported, we’re going to make sure that the call-outs get fixed so you’re not working like this.’”
She got two days off, but the heavy scheduling returned.
“Most of the corporate promises are really empty,” Wagstaff says. “I didn’t see any change at all in my day-to-day (work) after that. It was a lot of that before we went public, coming by and promising things, but ultimately it didn’t really amount to anything.”
Organizing for change
Fagan contacted the Rochester & Vicinity Labor Council about organizing her workplace in October, and she reached out to Wagstaff and Nuzzo about the prospect in December. By January, she started collecting signatures from coworkers on union authorization cards.
The managerial presence complicated the card signings. Moving in and out of the break room to carry out hushed conversations and pass out cards, Fagan tried to keep the process under wraps, but the managers often stayed close during her shifts.
“I feel like I sound dramatic when I say they just sent managers to spy on us, but they would work whenever our actual manager couldn’t work, so they were just watching us all day,” she says.
On top of that, organizers at the Brighton location say the managers repeatedly disrupted workflows during the store’s peak hours. Wagstaff, who often worked nights, remembers reading apology after apology in the employee group chat for certain tasks not getting completed due to interruptions caused by Rainford and Simmers.
They frequently worked alongside Fagan while she was cashiering or taking drive-through orders, even when she did not need help, and they also assigned fewer people than normal to bar stations. Fagan recalls a time when Rainford made her stand back and direct others during peak hours despite being asked to help by her coworkers.
“He pulled me off the floor, he wouldn’t let me help anyone,” she says. “Someone should be making espresso drinks for drive-through, someone should be making espresso drinks for cafe and mobile orders, and someone should be making all of the cold drinks. He made one person make all of those drinks, and he had me standing in the corner pointing at him. He was asking me for help and I couldn’t go help him.”
Wagstaff believes the disruptive management decisions reflect Starbucks’ idea that workers’ discontent is due to store managers not following corporate standards.
“I think that they think it’s just a matter of management not doing things correctly and that’s why partners are unhappy,” she says. “Realistically, we can make that decision for ourselves. I think that right now I have the best management I’ve ever had, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t want better pay and better benefits.”
Fagan says the intense harassment only eased off a couple days before the unionization vote. Now it has transitioned to Starbucks corporate warning employees from transferring to her store.
The logic behind their decisions remains unclear, as Rainford and Simmers did not respond to requests for comment for this article. However, a Starbucks representative gave this response to the unionization efforts:
“We will become the best version of Starbucks by co-creating our future directly as partners. And we will strengthen the Starbucks community by upholding each other’s dreams; upholding the standards and rituals of the company; celebrating partner individuality and voice; and upholding behaviors of mutual respect and dignity.”
Firing and backfiring
What is clear, however, is that the managers’ actions actually helped push the workers closer together.
The organizers benefitted from having a close-knit store, Fagan says. Their support system fostered an environment in which workers felt comfortable talking about their encounters with management, which brought them together based on shared experiences.
“Starbucks is kind of a funny social experience because you’re working with the same 10 people for 40 hours a week, you naturally get to know each other really well. The more you know someone, the more you care about them,” Wagstaff says.
Nothing seemed to move the union support needle more than Nuzzo’s firing.
Largely working night shifts, Wagstaff had little personal contact with Rainford, but she was witness to the firing and the immediate aftermath. She says it went a long way to color her opinion.
It was March 21, and she showed up around noon, right when Nuzzo’s shift was ending. Store Manager Ray Ballard told Nuzzo to stick around so Rainford could talk to him. Nuzzo ended up staying clocked in for a full hour past the end of his shift until the manager arrived.
They sat in the cafe. Suddenly, Wagstaff heard Nuzzo raise his voice, not quite yelling.
“He’s like, ‘Five years with the company and I’ve never missed a day of work, I’ve never been sick, I’ve never called out, and I must have been five minutes late one time and I’m getting fired?‘” she recounts, remembering the tears that ran down her cheeks as she continued making sandwiches.
Nuzzo admits he used “colorful language” with Rainford, which led to a lifetime ban.
“It’s the craziest thing in the world to me that you can be fired for being early to work,” says Wagstaff, who comforted Nuzzo in his car afterward. “The way that we understand it, that policy is supposed to be protection for partners, but I think it’s far more dangerous to be standing outside at four in the morning. Really also something that I haven’t seen enforced in the past. I’ve never known anybody to get fired for it.”
Fagan confirms the lack of prior enforcement of the rule, and both she and Wagstaff say they have entered stores alone before opening without any repercussions.
In the wake of the incident, Rainford pulled employees into the back room and conducted one-on-ones, during which he would explain his side of the firing, Fagan says. The prospect of losing their jobs left the workers worried, but they stayed united.
“We were all just really upset and in this state of despair after it happened,” Wagstaff says. “For lack of a better term, we were trauma-bonded by it. A lot of baristas were asking after, ‘What’s going to happen to us? Are we going to be fired for something like putting a rag on the counter by accident?’”
Throughout this period, Fagan made a point of keeping communication open with coworkers who seemed to be on the fence to gauge their concerns and needs. Only outwardly pro-union workers were looped into conversations before they went public with the filing.
“There were some people who were nos or on the fence when we filed that actually ended up voting yes,” she says. “Those kinds of conversations really helped, especially when corporate was heavily in the store, right next to us, harassing us. Just having that support system of people to fall back on and be like, ‘Hey, that was like fucked up, right? This isn’t okay, they can’t do this to us, right?’”
Ultimately, the union organizing effort succeeded. On April 7, by a 10-3 vote, the Monroe Avenue store became the 13th unionized Starbucks in the country. Fagan says it always seemed like the vote would be successful, but a lot of people on the fence were convinced to vote in favor by the anti-union actions, including Nuzzo’s firing.
“I hate to call myself a martyr, but I know that if anything, (my firing) isn’t scaring the workers. It’s lighting a flame,” says Nuzzo.
@sbworkersunited You know what they say… winner’s win 🙂 #thirteenunionstarbucks #unionizestarbucks #unionyes #sbworkersunited ♬ Just a Cloud Away – Pharrell Williams
A youthful labor movement
The store’s petition-drive leaders agree that shared generational experiences with economic struggles are part of the reason they gained an interest in labor organizing.
“Some of my earliest formative memories, besides watching ‘Powerpuff Girls,’ is hearing my parents stress out about the (2007-09) recession,” says Fagan, a 22-year-old Rochester native. “I grew up with an assumption that, ‘Oh, this is what the world is like.’ For other people in their twenties, I’m sure that’s not uncommon. We’re trying to deal with these global crises that never seem to stop.”
Identifying as an “old millennial” at 35 years old, Nuzzo says he was not interested in politics or labor organizing until Bernie Sanders launched his presidential run in 2015. The company’s treatment of workers during the pandemic also helped shape much of his thinking.
Sanders tweeted his congratulations to the unionized stores in Rochester and Buffalo in April and most recently expressed solidarity with Starbucks organizers in Burlington, Vt.
Congratulations to the Starbucks workers in Buffalo, Rochester & Brighton, New York for successfully voting to form unions in 3 more coffee shops. Starbucks workers have now won 13 of 14 union elections. I am so proud of what they are accomplishing. Keep up the great work!
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) April 7, 2022
“Young people have taken it on the chin. The American dream is not really working out for them the same way it did for their parents,” Creighton says, citing a combination of ballooning student loan costs, economic recessions, and income inequality as issues this generation has had to grapple with.
Fifty-four percent of college students who graduated in 2019 from New York institutions had student debt, carrying an average of nearly $30,000 worth, according to a study by the Institute for College Access and Success. In 1996, the inflation-adjusted nationwide average was slightly less than $13,000.
In 2020, the Pew Research Center found the share of U.S. aggregate income going to upper-income households has risen by nearly 20 percent since 1970 while the middle-income portion has fallen by the same percentage and the lower-income share has remained stagnant. Each decade since 1971 has also seen a decrease in the share of adults living in middle-income households.
Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson’s salary rose from $14 million to $20 million in 2021. Johnson announced his retirement this March. Howard Schultz, who built Starbucks into one of the world’s top brands, returned to serve as interim CEO.
“With significant pressures leading to the fracturing of our partner and customer experiences, I’ve been transparent about our missteps and the reason for my return—to reimagine Starbucks—built on our core values and guiding principles,” Schultz wrote in his April blog post.
Overall, the local organizers are hopeful for the future. Wagstaff, 25, is optimistic about job security, better pay and benefits, guaranteed hours, and improved college assistance that union membership may bring.
“I came from a low-income family. Going to college felt impossible for me,” says Wagstaff, who hopes that a more comprehensive tuition reimbursement plan will allow her to attend Rochester Institute of Technology and study political science.
Even Nuzzo, who was fired, still finds positives in his experience. For one, he will be sitting on the negotiating board now.
“I see this as the starting point. It’s bigger than Rochester, bigger than Buffalo. It’s bigger than Starbucks too,” says Nuzzo. “I want it to go on to Dunkin, McDonalds, Burger King, you name it. I want them to see what we’re doing and maybe see how it can work for them too.”
Justin O’Connor is a sophomore at the University of Rochester. Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.
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