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Fired Philly baristas won their labor case against Starbucks. Here’s how.

Here's what workers and managers can learn from the organizing campaign and National Labor Relations Board trial.

TJ Bussiere, second from left, and Echo Nowakowska, right, at a demonstration at the Starbucks at Broad and Washington in November 2019. An administrative law judge ruled that the two baristas were illegally fired for organizing.
TJ Bussiere, second from left, and Echo Nowakowska, right, at a demonstration at the Starbucks at Broad and Washington in November 2019. An administrative law judge ruled that the two baristas were illegally fired for organizing.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Starbucks illegally retaliated against and fired two Philadelphia baristas who were trying to organize a union, an administrative law judge has ruled.

The judge, Andrew S. Gollin, earlier this summer ordered Starbucks to reinstate the workers with backpay and post fliers at its stores at Broad and Washington in South Philly and by the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania that stated the company would not violate workers’ right to organize.

It’s a victory for the baristas, who said they turned down $100,000 to drop their case, as well as for low-wage, hourly workers employed by big-box chains organizing to improve their working conditions.

But the ruling in the National Labor Relations Board case, which has lasted nearly two years, is one tempered by a coming appeal from Starbucks. The Seattle-based coffee corporation does not have to rehire the workers or pay them during the appeals process, which could take months or longer.

Because of that timeline, fired barista TJ Bussiere said that “in the grand scheme of things, [the ruling] almost doesn’t mean that much.” Bussiere, 22, and former colleague Echo Nowakowska, 27, can’t go back to Starbucks, which means they can’t continue to organize — which is why such firings, even though ruled to be illegal, have been effective.

Starbucks does not agree with the NLRB decision and will appeal, spokesperson Reggie Borges said.

» READ MORE: These Philly baristas are taking on Starbucks in a fledgling worker movement

“At Starbucks, we have always respected our partners’ rights to engage in protected activity,” Borges said in a statement. “However, we expect our partners to uphold our policies and values.”

Still, the ruling is important, the baristas say, because it establishes a continued record of Starbucks’ retaliation against labor activists. The corporation has sought to brand itself as a progressive employer.

“It exposes Starbucks’ union-busting practices,” Nowakowska said. “It exposes the very tip of it.”

And, the baristas said, it gives workers a guide for what to look out for when they organize, as well as a vision for what’s possible for workers, like them, who are on the lowest rung of the corporate hierarchy and who didn’t have the backing of a traditional union or labor organization.

» READ MORE: Fired after organizing, Starbucks baristas turned down a payout and took their bosses to court

Their initial organizing resulted in the resignation of a manager who they alleged was discriminatory, and for a brief period workers got more hours added to their shifts. It also resulted, the trial showed, in a concerted effort to respond on the part of corporate higher-ups: A district manager conducted meetings with workers to assess employee loyalty and sent regular updates about the Broad and Washington store to regional vice president of operations Camille Hymes. Regional leadership also went to the store to meet with Bussiere and Nowakowska.

“It’s really good for people to see,” Bussiere said, “that you can organize, you can do these direct actions that actually put pressure on Starbucks to change policies.”

Here’s what they said workers and managers can learn from their organizing and the NLRB trial:

Go public

As part of the NLRB case, lawyers for the board had to prove that the baristas had engaged in what’s known as concerted, protected activity — essentially organizing with coworkers to improve working conditions — and that Starbucks knew about it.

It wasn’t hard to prove because the workers had been vocal about their organizing. They staged two in-store demonstrations, marching in with coworkers and supporters and delivering demands to managers. They also passed out fliers about Starbucks’ alleged illegal activity outside the store after one of the demonstrations, posted video of the gatherings on social media, and spoke to The Inquirer about their organizing.

As Bussiere put it: “You can’t change anything in private or by yourself.”

Note, though, that the workers would have lost protection of the law had they disrupted business when doing the in-store demonstrations. The baristas’ protests lasted only about five minutes and didn’t block entrances or exits to the store, so they were still protected by the law, Gollin ruled.

You don’t need to go viral to get results

The baristas’ Instagram and Twitter posts about their demonstrations got just a few dozen likes, but they served their purpose — as a public record of the organizing and as a way to get at Starbucks’ concern for its image. The trial showed Starbucks had staffers and managers monitor the baristas’ social media posts.

But their power, Bussiere said, didn’t come from social media, or retweets or likes — it came from organizing coworkers.

Know your rights

It’s a cliche, but the baristas’ case shows why if you don’t know your rights, they can’t protect you.

Two supervisors told Bussiere he couldn’t complain about management and say negative things about Starbucks to his coworkers while on the clock. “You’re supposed to be having upbeat conversations that align with Starbucks’ missions and values,” his manager said in a recording that was used as evidence in the trial.

That statement was illegal, Gollin said, because “employees have a protected right to complain about their supervisor — even to seek their discharge” as long as it isn’t threatening or offensive.

In another instance, Nowakowska’s manager said he had cut her hours because she was “coming into the store and causing a disruption” — referencing the first demonstration.

That was another violation of the law, Gollin ruled. Employees have a right to protest about their working conditions and employers can’t withhold hours to get them to stop.

In both cases, because they suspected their rights were being violated, the baristas were able to document these instances and bring them up in the trial.