Labor activists rallied Monday afternoon in front of the Greenwich Village residence of Howard Schultz, the interim CEO of Starbucks, before marching up Fifth Avenue to gather outside the penthouse owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder and executive chairman of Amazon. They called on the executives to recognize and negotiate with the unions that have formed at their companies and to stop seeking to deter organizing efforts.
Starbucks and Amazon union organizers from across New York state and from other parts of the country were joined by supporters who came to show solidarity with them on Labor Day. Elected officials including State Sen. Jessica Ramos and Councilmember Tiffany Caban were also in attendance at the demonstration, which eventually made its way to Times Square.
“The way we’re organizing is real grassroots, nontraditional, 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 in front of Schultz’s building.
Both companies have pushed back against the fresh wave of union organizing they have seen over the past couple of years.
Smalls helped lead the successful organizing effort at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, known as JFK8, which became the company’s first shop to vote to unionize in April. The National Labor Relations Board recently decided to uphold the win after it was challenged by Amazon – but Amazon has vowed to appeal the decision.
Starbucks workers in Buffalo, meanwhile, became the first to unionize at the company in December 2021, and more than 200 other stores across the country have followed suit. The first New York City store voted to unionize in April. But Starbucks has closed some of the locations that have unionized and some former Starbucks employees say they were fired for engaging in organizing efforts. New York City’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection announced Friday that it is suing Starbucks for wrongful termination of a union organizer.
“It’s been intense union busting toward all of the Starbucks workers in New York City and they’re all constantly nervous that just because they show any solidarity they will be a target,” Megan DiMotta, who works at a Starbucks in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, told the crowd in front of Schultz’s building. The 17 workers at her store voted unanimously to unionize in May.
DiMotta said she’s been working at Starbucks for 12 years and is afraid she’ll lose her job because of her participation in the union. But she added that she feels collective action is worth the risk. She said employees at her store recently got management to fix the air conditioning by staging a walkout.
“Worker solidarity scares them because they know we have the power,” she told the crowd.
In response to a query from Gothamist about allegations that Starbucks has been discouraging unionization, a Starbucks spokesperson said, "Starbucks respects our partners … Any claims of anti-union activity and retaliation are categorically false.”
Amazon provided the same statement it shared in response to the recent NLRB decision upholding the union vote in Staten Island. “As we showed throughout the hearing with dozens of witnesses and hundreds of pages of documents, both the NLRB and the ALU improperly influenced the outcome of the election and we don’t believe it represents what the majority of our team wants,” Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokesperson, said.
This year, we’ve seen seismic shifts in the labor movement.
“This year, we’ve seen seismic shifts in the labor movement,” said Justine Medina, one of the lead organizers with the Amazon Labor Union. She said the company’s refusal to recognize the union in Staten Island has been motivating rather than discouraging.
“We’re demanding that the bosses negotiate fairly,” she said.
Some protesters traveled from afar to participate in Monday’s demonstration, including Amazon workers from Bessemer, Alabama who are trying to get their colleagues to vote to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Workers at that warehouse were the first Amazon employees to attempt to unionize but have yet to have a successful vote.
Isaiah Thomas, 21, of Bessemer spoke with Gothamist while marching with his colleagues up Fifth Avenue from Schultz’s building to Bezos’ residence.
“We decided we needed to come up here and show our solidarity with our brothers and sisters because their fight is our fight and we’re willing to help out any Amazon worker,” said Thomas. “And not just Amazon workers, but Starbucks workers - any worker that wants to organize.”
Demonstrators did not reserve all their criticism for Bezos and Schultz. Smalls also called out Gov. 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 they are hired and bars them from punishing workers for failing to meet quotas.
Smalls said he was expecting Hochul to sign the bill on Labor Day. “But then I got an email a few days ago saying that’s not going to happen,” Smalls said to boos from the crowd.
A spokesperson for Hochul’s office said she is reviewing the legislation.