Labor activists gathered Monday afternoon outside the Greenwich Village residence of Howard Schultz, the acting CEO of Starbucks, before marching up Fifth Avenue to rally outside the penthouse owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder and executive chairman of Amazon. They called on leaders to recognize and negotiate with the unions that have formed in their companies and to stop trying to discourage organizing efforts.
Starbucks and Amazon union organizers from across New York State and other parts of the country were joined by supporters who came to show their solidarity on Labor Day. Elected officials including State Senator Jessica Ramos and Councilwoman Tiffany Caban were also present at the protest, which eventually made its way to Times Square.
“The way we organize is really grassroots, non-traditional, new school, new generation of organizing, and that’s what it’s going to take to get these companies to bend a knee and come to the table,” Chris Smalls , president of the Amazon Labor Union, told the crowd gathered outside Schultz’s building.
Both companies have pushed back against the new wave of unionization they have seen over the past two years.
Smalls helped lead the successful organizing effort at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse, known as JFK8, which became the company’s first store to vote to unionize in April. The National Labor Relations Board recently decided to uphold the victory after it was challenged by Amazon – but Amazon has promised to appeal the decision.
Meanwhile, workers at Starbucks in Buffalo, became the first to unionize in the company in December 2021, and over 200 other stores across the country followed suit. New York’s first store voted to unionize in April. But Starbucks has shut down some of the locations that unionized and some former Starbucks employees say they were fired for engaging in unionization efforts. The New York Department of Consumer and Worker Protection announced on Friday that it is suing Starbucks for bad ending of a union organizer.
“It’s been an intense union busting of all Starbucks workers in New York and they’re all constantly nervous that just because they’re showing solidarity they’ll be a target,” said Megan DiMotta, who works at a Starbucks in Bath Beach, Brooklyn. , told the crowd outside Schultz’s building. The 17 workers in his store voted unanimously to unionize in May.
DiMotta said she had worked at Starbucks for 12 years and feared losing her job because of her union involvement. But she added that she thought the collective action was worth it. She said workers at her store recently demanded management fix the air conditioning by staging a strike.
“Workers’ solidarity scares them because they know we have the power,” she told the crowd.
In response to a question from Gothamist about allegations that Starbucks discouraged unionization, a Starbucks spokesperson said, “Starbucks respects our partners…Any allegations of union busting and retaliation are categorically false.
Amazon provided the same statement it shared in response to the NLRB’s recent ruling upholding the Staten Island union vote. “As we have shown throughout the hearing with dozens of witnesses and hundreds of pages of documents, the NLRB and ALU improperly influenced the outcome of the election and we do not believe that it represents what the majority of our team wants,” Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson said.
“This year we have seen seismic shifts in the labor movement,” said Justine Medina, one of the Amazon Labor Union’s key organizers. She said the company’s refusal to recognize the union in Staten Island was more motivating than discouraging.
“We demand that the bosses negotiate fairly,” she said.
Some protesters traveled from far and wide to take part in Monday’s protest, including Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, who are trying to get their co-workers to vote to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Workers at this warehouse were the first Amazon employees to attempt to unionize, but were not yet able to vote.
Isaiah Thomas, 21, of Bessemer, spoke with Gothamist while walking with his colleagues on Fifth Avenue from Schultz’s building to Bezos’ residence.
“We have decided that we have to come here and show our solidarity with our brothers and sisters because their fight is our fight and we are ready to help any Amazon worker,” Thomas said. “And not just Amazon workers, but Starbucks workers — any worker who wants to organize.”
The protesters did not reserve all of their criticism for Bezos and Schultz. Smalls also called out Governor Kathy Hochul for not yet signing the Warehouse Worker Protection Act, which passed the state legislature in June. It requires companies to disclose any quotas workers may be subject to when hired and prevents them from punishing workers who do not meet quotas.
Smalls said he expected Hochul to sign the bill on Labor Day. “But I got an email a few days ago saying that’s not going to happen,” Smalls said to boos from the crowd.
A spokeswoman for Hochul’s office said she was reviewing the legislation.