Carpenters Union Slams City For False Willets Point Promise 

Unionized carpenters rallied outside of City Hall against the NYC Economic Development Corporation. Photo: Iryna Shkurhan

By Iryna Shkurhan | [email protected] 

Over a hundred carpenter union members rallied at City Hall on July 13 for what they say are false promises from the city to designate construction jobs at Willets Point to unionionized workers. 

Willets Point, an underdeveloped and isolated area situated between Citi Field and Flushing, has long been neglected. But in November 2022, Mayor Adams announced that the area will be transformed to contain 2,500 new affordable homes, the city’s first soccer stadium, along with a hotel, retail spaces and a public school. The vision for this new community seeks to create connectivity with surrounding areas with an emphasis on sustainable design. 

“During the construction phase of the Project, Purchaser shall employ contractors that pay prevailing wage, and shall hire workers from state-certified apprenticeship programs for the construction of all non-residential buildings in the project,” states an excerpt from the NYS Economic Development Corporation’s request for proposal document, which was blown up, printed and displayed widely at the rally.

The New York City Economic Development Corporation says its mission is to invest in infrastructure and area-wide redevelopment, while spurring economic growth in the process.

“Just imagine how surprised we were when we discovered that a contractor employed by the city to build Willets Point didn’t have an apprenticeship program,” said Joseph Geiger, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the New York City District Council of Carpenters at the rally. “Did the apprenticeship requirements just disappear into thin air? Who did it? Who is responsible?”

“Who’s the rat? EDC,” union members all in orange shirts shouted collectively during the afternoon rally that grew over a dozen city officials. 

Union organizers referred to EDC as a rat in their chants and signs. Photo: Iryna Shkurhan

“The Building and Construction Trades Council, including the Carpenters Union, have been a pivotal partner in this project and we look forward to continuing these conversations. This development will create over 14,000 construction jobs, all of which will be good-paying jobs for New Yorkers,” said an EDC spokesperson in an email to the Queens Ledger, ignoring questions on whether workers will be hired from a state certified apprenticeship program like stated in the RFP. 

Union representatives say that when workers who did not go through a state certified apprenticeship program are hired, the safety of workers and future residents, as well as the integrity of construction projects are put at risk. 

“For two months, it was a lot of foot dragging and bureaucratic hot potato to the point that culminated in yesterday’s massive rally, with all those elected officials demanding that EDC answer our questions and enforce their own rules,” said Kevin Elkins, Director of Political Action at NYCDCC in an interview with the Queens Ledger. 

The Economic Development Corporation was heavily criticized from stepped away from the terms they outlined. Photo: Iryna Shkurhan

Elkins says that NYCDCC heard through “the grapevine” that EDC chose to go with East Coast Drilling, a Queens based non unionized company, for the project instead. Despite the terms outlined in the RFP, it appears that EDC is straying from their initial promise, which union representatives say is a safety risk given the dangerous nature of the work. 

“To have people who did not go to a four year apprenticeship program and learn how to do their job well, but also safely, is a very, very very, very irresponsible thing, especially when there’s city money at stake,” Elkins pointed out. 

“When workers safety is at stake, rules must be followed. And the rules state that if a  contractor has no state certified apprenticeship program, they don’t belong in Willets Point. Or any taxpayer funded job site,” Geiger reinforced at the rally. “And if we allow this to happen, it’s gonna happen to every contract with the city of New York.”

“It has been so disappointing to learn that everything that was taught to us seems to not be true,” said State Senator Jessica Ramos, who mentioned that she was briefed on this project only one day before it was announced. “I was told that there would be no problem on this project, that everything was going to be done by the letter, and that my community would be able to count on good union jobs.”

State Senator Jessica Ramos rallied the crowd with her remarks. Photo: Iryna Shkurhan

Ramos, who represents Jackson Heights, Corona, Elmhurst and a bit of Rego Park, lost representation of Willets Point during redistricting last year. But she says that her proximity to the site now, and growing up in the area, has reinforced her concerns of its outcome.  

“I see how desperate my community is for good union jobs,” said Ramos, who is Chair of the Committee on Labor. “We know that the only way to do this project is with apprenticeship programs that are going to guarantee worker safety and union wages and benefits to every single worker.”

The majority of the more than dozen electeds who showed up in solidarity were from Queens, but representatives from all five boroughs were present, including Councilmember Joe Borelli from Staten Island,  Councilmember Oswald Feliz from the Bronx and Councilmember Jennifer Gutierrez from Brooklyn. City Comptroller Brad Lander also made an appearance and delivered remarks in solidarity. 

City Councilmember Joann Ariola, who represents much of southeast Queens, expressed solidarity with union workers. Photo: Iryna Shkurhan

“I want to be very clear about this. As I said, when it comes to our parks or any other project in our city, these projects must be 100% union labor,” said Councilmember Shekar Krishnan, who represents Elmhurst and Jackson Heights. 

“What happened in Willets Point can happen in any of the other five boroughs on any major development project,” said Elkins. “If it’s been discovered that rules aren’t being followed by a city funded project, and they no longer matter, that impacts every taxpayer.”

Astoria Starbucks Workers Strike, Again

Workers and supporters chanted, “If we don’t get it, shut it down!”

By Iryna Shkurhan | [email protected]

Workers at two unionized Starbucks in Astoria joined over a hundred stores across the country to strike for fair labor practices on March 22, the same day as the company’s ‘Founder’s Day’ celebration.

The majority of workers at the store on Astoria Boulevard and the corner of 31st Street, were outside at 7 a.m., armed with posters and chanting their demands for a contract negotiation to secure better wages and working conditions. Despite the train loudly rumbling overhead and complaints of strained voices, close to 20 people marched on the corner until 1pm. 

“I’m happy to join other union stores on strike today because it’s never been more necessary than right now,” said James Carr, a Starbucks partner for four years. “Our union is small but now unstoppable, and we’re ready to start making moves.”

This location became the first Starbucks store in Queens to unionize after securing a unanimous vote on June 6, 2022 following a months-long effort in which one employee was illegally fired for unionizing. But, despite the successful unionization of 280 stores since 2019, not a single contract has been signed in food faith due to Starbucks failing to negotiate with union representatives. Workers say that while unionization has given them more bargaining power and a sense of national solidarity, they are still experiencing unfair labor practices such as illegal cuts to work hours and inconsistent scheduling. 

“There’s a huge disconnect here between what we’re seeing on the shop floor, and the kind of money that executives are making,” said Maria Flores, who has worked at this location for three years. “We’re being priced out of New York as it is. We can’t afford rent, we can’t pay bills, we can barely afford our medical coverage.”

Outgoing Starbucks CEO, Howard Shultz, is being investigated for union busting that started in 2019. He is set to testify before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions on March 29, to avoid being subpoenaed. Shultz stepped down as CEO on March 20, two weeks earlier than previously announced amid growing scrutiny. He still remains on the Board. 

“Rather than publicizing rallies and protests, we encourage Workers United to live up to their obligations by responding to our proposed sessions and meeting us in-person to move the good faith bargaining process forward,” said a Starbucks spokesperson in an email to the Queens Ledger. 

A Dunkin cup and bag can be seen at the table the organizers of the strike set up.

Workers say that Starbucks has failed to meet them at the bargaining table in an earnest way. Earlier this month, prosecutors at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) alleged that Starbucks violated labor law by refusing to engage by refusing to bargain if some workers attended the session remotely. The objection to the hybrid model in negotiation sessions has been the main way Starbucks has delayed granting unionized stores their demands. 

Several workers said that the company is illegally cutting their work hours under the New York Fair Work Week Law in Fast Food that bans a reduction of work hours by more than 15% week to week. After the rush of the holiday season is over, employees typically know to expect a reduction in hours due to a slower rush. 

According to the law, employees are entitled to a regular schedule that has at least 85% of the work hours in their baseline regular schedule. Employers cannot request employees to consent to a reduction, but hours can be reduced if there is a just cause or good faith economic reason.

Workers allege that there is a four dollar pay differential between shift supervisors whose responsibilities include tracking inventory, opening and closing the store and handling money, compared to baristas who are responsible for taking orders and preparing food and beverages. Employees say that at this location, shift supervisors are being denied both covering barista shifts and shift supervisor shifts due to the pay differential. 

“We make every effort and have invested significant resources to ensure partner scheduling practices are in alignment with New York City’s Fair Workweek Law,” said the Starbucks spokesperson by email.

Employees on strike say that the inconsistency in scheduling is affecting their financial security and ability to afford essentials amid inflation and a rising cost of living in New York City. 

“We’re being nickeled and dimed here at the store level,” said Flores.

On Wednesday, workers filed an additional ten complaints against Starbucks to the NYC Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP), after filing 28 complaints last month. DCWP confirmed that there is an open investigation into complaints around the NYC Fair Workweek Law. 

Last July, Austin Locke was fired from the Astoria Blvd. location for engaging in unionization efforts following a successful vote. He was reinstated with $21,000 in back pay and penalties after DCWP found that his termination was in violation of the “just cause” protections of the Fair Workweek Law.

On a wider scale, the NLRB has issued 80 complaints against Starbucks, including illegally firing more than a dozen workers in retaliation for unionizing across the country. There have been over 500 unfair labor practice charges lodged against this company. 

During the time of the strike, the store appeared empty and was not accepting mobile orders as usual. Two employees, and the general manager, did not participate in the strike and were able to keep the store open despite low traffic due to community support of the strike. 

A table outside the store held up signs that read “We Demand a Seat at the Table Now!” and “Starbucks: Respect your Workers’ Right to Organize.” Next to a megaphone, sat a Dunkin’ cup. 

 

Ditmars Starbucks worker claims illegal firing

Starbucks worker Austin Locke has been a leading voice for the unionization of the Starbucks at 31st Street and Ditmars Boulevard.

He has worked there for the past three years, spending six in total with the company.

Austin Locke protesting outside Starbucks

His name was the first in the letter workers sent to Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz detailing how they have experienced “all sorts of harassment, racism, sexism, and physical violence on top of fewer hours, meager wages, and poor staffing.”

Less than a week after he and his team unionized on June 30—making them the second in Queens to do so—Locke was fired on July 5 for what he calls “bogus reasons” in a video posted to the official Twitter account of the organizers at the Ditmars Boulevard Starbucks (DitmarsSBWU).

“I was just recently fired here illegally for unionizing the store,” he said in the video, in which he also announced a rally will be held on July 22 at 6 p.m.

A Starbucks spokesperson denies these allegations, instead stating that Locke was fired due to violating health and safety standards, failing to comply with COVID-19 violations and violating the Starbucks code of ethics.

“Austin Locke is no longer with Starbucks for blatant violations of our health and safety standards, as well as failing to uphold our mission and values,” a spokesperson stated. “Our health and safety standards are in place to protect our partners and the communities we serve, and we cannot ignore blatant violations that put others at risk. A partner’s interest in a union does not exempt them from the standards we have always held. We will continue to consistently enforce our policies.”

Having two previous violations during his time with Starbucks, a spokesperson stated that he received his third violation, or “corrective action,” when he refused to have his temperature taken when he showed up for work the day after calling out sick with COVID-19.

He also alleged a coworker had physical contact with him, despite video evidence proving that to be false, according to the Starbucks spokesperson.

Locke is demanding reinstatement and backpay for the days since he was fired, and announced via Twitter that there will be a rally on July 22 at 6 p.m. for these demands.

The demands of the Ditmars Starbucks include increased wages, free full-coverage healthcare, and more sick time. Among elected officials who have shown support for the recent vote to unionize is State Senator Michael Gianaris.

“Congratulations to the latest Queens Starbucks workers exercising their right to organize and join a union,” he said in a recent statement. “Organized labor is the foundation of a strong working class, which we need now more than ever. I am thrilled this movement keeps growing, and I am proud of the workers leading this fight.”

Half a mile away, the Astoria Boulevard and 31st Street Starbucks celebrated a unanimous vote on June 6, making it the first in Queens.

The two Starbucks join a movement of hundreds of other stores that are making clear their frustration with being underpaid and understaffed.

Such a movement can be seen In Buffalo, New York, where a unionized Starbucks on Elmwood Avenue informed local leaders they would be going on strike on July 9 due to changing staff schedules.

In a message published on the Starbucks news website on July 11, Shultz — who returned to Starbucks as interim CEO in April after retiring in 2018 — states that “we need to reinvent Starbucks for the future.”

He presents, in this message, five new moves to reinvent Starbucks, and a set of principles for a new partnership at Starbucks.

This message can be found at stories.starbucks.com.

Chipotle unionizer returns to work

Brenda Garcia, a 31-year-old Chipotle worker from Queens, returned to work last week, just days after she says she was fired for speaking out on the fast food chain’s scheduling practices and speaking with her co-workers about forming a union.

The Flushing resident and single mother of one says she was fired after she called in sick, despite having three sick days to use. In response, Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ filed charges under the National Labor Relations Act, accusing Chipotle of firing her for union activity.

Four days later, Garcia returned to work at 136-61 Roosevelt Avenue, with the backing of local Councilmember Sandra Ung.

“This shows that when we speak up we can make a difference,” said Garcia. “Chipotle must respect workers, give us the opportunity to grow and respect our right to organize a union. I’m ready to get my job back and to keep fighting for the shifts and a schedule that I need to survive and to support my son.”

Councilmember Ung added, “I’m delighted to be here to stand alongside Brenda as she returns to work after being unjustly terminated. I thank 32BJ for amplifying Brenda’s story, and for all it continues to do to support the fight for fair working conditions for working-class people.”

In a statement to The Queens Ledger, Chipotle says Garcia was never terminated, but rather requested two weeks off.

“Ms. Garcia was never terminated, however, on April 18, she requested two weeks off,” said Laurie Schalow, Chipotle’s Chief Corporate Affairs Officer. “We are pleased that she returned to work exactly two weeks later on May 2.”

Among the provisions of the city’s Fair Workweek Law is that employers must offer more hours and additional shifts to current employees before hiring new help. Last year, the city filed a lawsuit alleging that Chipotle had violated the Fair Workweek Law almost 600,000 times in a two-year span.

Kyle Bragg, president of 32BJ, says the union still has a complaint filed against Chipotle alleging anti-union intimidation tactics and for creating an atmosphere of surveillance.

“We are glad in this case that Chipotle made this decision to bring Brenda back,” Bragg said. “But the charge of alleging anti-union intimidation, threats and creating an impression of surveillance remains. This is why workers need a union at Chipotle.”

Astoria Starbucks first in Queens to file to unionize

An Astoria Starbucks is filing for a union, the first of its kind in Queens.

The store, located at 30-18 Astoria Boulevard, announced its plans to file a petition for a union election in a letter written to President and CEO Howard Schultz.

“The organizing committee at Astoria Blvd. firmly stands in solidarity with unionization efforts across the country,” the letter reads. “The same courage of stores before us has empowered our baristas to take positive action. We are cautiously excited for the future of a company that is reflective of its workforce and not of corporate greed.”

The Astoria location is part of more than 145 stores across the country that have filed to unionize.

Elected officials at all levels of government showed their support for the workers at the Astoria Boulevard store with a letter of support and impromptu visits to the store.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, State Senator Michael Gianaris, Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani and Councilmember Tiffany Cabán all signed on to the letter calling for Schultz to sign the Fair Election Principles and respecting the workers’ right to organize.

“Every worker should have the right to organize a union and bargain collectively,” Gianaris said. “I stand with the workers at my local store and the entire Starbucks Workers United effort as they fight for better working conditions and fair pay for all associates. I call on Starbucks to allow the free, unencumbered election these workers deserve.”

In February, three Starbucks locations in New York City made their first efforts to unionize, just weeks after three more stores in Buffalo were the first to do so. The first union elections in New York City will be an in-person vote at the Roastery at the end of the month.

The Astor Place location will be voting by mail with ballots going out at the start of next month, and ballots for Caesar’s Bay in Brooklyn, Great Neck in Long Island, and Massapequa in Long Island will go out a week later.

Brandi Aldu, a Starbucks Workers United organizing committee member, said, “My fellow partners and I decided to unionize because we are forced to manage the consequences of decisions we were not a part of, made by people who don’t understand what it is like to live a life as a Starbucks barista.”

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