Ever since Starbucks workers formed their first union at a store in Buffalo, New York, in December 2021, over 200 stores have voted to unionize, mirroring the efforts of many shift workers in retail chains across the country. Now, a union leader of one such Starbucks location alleges he was fired from his job because of it.
On Monday, a video of staff in Tonawanda, a Starbucks location in the Buffalo, New York area, walking out in support of an employee who was fired was posted on TikTok. The now-viral video, which was posted by Starbucks Workers United, shows several staff members and union colleagues walking out to protest the firing of a shift supervisor and union leader named Sam Amato, who says he had been working as a Starbucks employee for 13 years at the time of his termination. As of this publication, the video has garnered a whopping 21 million views, over 3.5 million likes and 41,000 comments on TikTok alone.
The events in the viral TikTok occurred on Friday, Aug. 5, and were the culmination of what Amato said he believes are anti-union tactics employed by Starbucks.
“I strongly believe I was fired in retaliation for being a union leader. The reasons Starbucks gave me were made up,” Sam Amato told TODAY Food. “They said I modified the store’s operations without permission. That is not true.”
Regarding his firing, a Starbucks spokesperson told TODAY that Amato was let go for store policy violations, particularly for failing to adhere to Starbucks store closing policies. It also said Amato had been previously issued a “Final Written Warning.”
"They said that I had two meetings and our discussions in May, one regarding policy on modifying operations in one, addressing gaps in my supervisor performance," said Amato. "Those meetings and discussions never happened.”
Amato further alleges that Starbucks was unable to provide any proof of dates or documentation that it happened when he asked. “In the whole month of July, I was heavily involved with union activity,” he said.
Amato added that throughout union organizing efforts, there had been a high turnover of store managers that led to understaffing issues in the area. This is why, he said, closing the lobby was necessary on July 3, the holiday weekend, the event Starbucks told him he was terminated for.
“I wasn’t the one that made the call,” said Amato. “It was another supervisor and Starbucks is aware of that.”
Starbucks said that all partners are required to comply with company standards, policies and procedures and that partners are aware that failing to uphold the standards can result in a separation. The company also said that it will continue enforcing policies consistently for all partners (partners, by the way, is the term it uses for all Starbucks team members).
Amato said he thinks he was actually fired because of his outspokenness supporting the union, saying that his name has been in most of the emails on behalf of the union for his location and that some union-focused emails were sent from his personal email address to members of management. Amato also said he recently appeared in a video with organizing-focused media outlet More Perfect Union which he said may have contributed to his singling out as a key player in his location’s union efforts.
“The first week of July, I filed a big ethics complaint within Starbucks about how (a manager) was violating policy and committing some unfair labor practices,” Amato said, adding that a few days afterward, he helped lead his store in a one-day strike.
Amato joins the growing number of Starbucks union leaders that have spoken out about their firing for offenses they say are unfounded. According to the Guardian, Starbucks employees have alleged over 75 workers have been fired in retaliation for union organizing in 2020. In response, Starbucks workers across 17 states have held over 55 different strikes in recent months across the country.
Workers for the coffee chain have also filed hundreds of allegations of misconduct by Starbucks management related to unionization efforts. These allegations are currently under review by the National Labor Relations Board. Regarding these allegations, Starbucks told TODAY it has no comment.
“Starbucks has taken their union-busting to an extreme, unimaginable level,” said Starbucks Workers United to TODAY in an email. “They are firing union leaders, like Sam, in waves across the country. These firings not only harm workers, but damage Starbucks’ brand and business. We will hold Starbucks and Howard Schultz accountable for their unethical and unjust actions both in the court of public opinion and in the court of law.”
Amato said he is thankful for the support he’s receiving on social media as well as attention for the strike that began the day he was terminated from his position. A GoFundMe that was set up in his name by a colleague has raised $4,966 of a $5,000 goal.
“I’m just so beyond grateful,” said Amato. “After 13 years to be told that you’re not going to get a paycheck or insurance, that your life is going to be radically changed — to have gone through that alone would be horrifying, but to have the support of my team, I’m so, so thankful for them.”
On the day of Amato’s firing, he and other staff at the Tonawanda location began an indefinite strike to demand his reinstatement, an effort that Amato said is ongoing every night in front of the store. As of this writing, the Tonawanda Starbucks location remains closed due to the strike.
As for whether or not he would return to Starbucks if it were to reverse its decision, Amato said he would have stipulations.
“I know my value and I know my worth. I know how much I gave to that job and how well I performed at that job,” Amato said, adding that he would want to know that the people he’s working for also sees those things in him.
“If I genuinely felt that Starbucks valued my time and dedication, I would absolutely go back because I love doing that job,” he added. “If I genuinely felt that they showed remorse and that I would be a valued partner of theirs, I would go back. But it would take a lot.”