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Workers Face Retaliation, Including Layoffs, For Organizing Unions During COVID-19 Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has fueled strikes, protests, and union organizing efforts in response to mass layoffs and concerns of safety protections for essential workers around the United States since economic shutdowns began in March 2020.

As workers try to organize unions to improve working conditions during the pandemic, employers have engaged in retaliation, including laying off workers involved in organizing.

Sergio Ceballos, a truck driver contracted with XPO Logistics in the San Diego, California area, was banned from a Toyota supplier yard on June 29, following a demonstration outside the yard.The Teamsters union opposed the lack of personal protective equipment and reduced wages during the pandemic.

The Teamsters are trying to unionize XPO drivers around the U.S. and fight the classification of drivers as independent contractors.

“I talked to one of the Toyota supervisors and he told me I was banned because they saw me outside of Toyota with those ‘lazy Teamsters,’” said Ceballos. “It’s not fair for a driver working for them for a long time like me.”

Ceballos noted over 95 percent of drivers’ contracted work in the area involves work for the Toyota supplier, essentially resulting in a layoff as he has only been able to work other loads once or twice a week.

Unfair labor practice charges have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) by the Teamsters against the supplier and XPO Logistics alleging violations of the National Labor Relations Act, including retaliation for union and other concerted activity, threatening loss of work for participating in union activity, and surveilling union activity.

XPO Logistics denied Ceballos’ claims of retaliation, contending he accepted loads since the alleged incident. “Our customer did ask us to ban him from a site in San Diego due to a safety violation, and we did so consistent with protocol,” an XPO spokesperson told Shadowproof.

The drivers are independent contractors, responsible for equipping themselves with PPE, according to the XPO spokesperson, but XPO provides drivers with PPE free of charge and claimed payment rates are regularly reviewed to align with current market conditions.

A Toyota spokesperson added their suppliers are expected to abide by Toyota’s principles. “We are not aware of, nor do we condone, any labor law violations.”

It’s not uncommon for workers to lose their jobs due to involvement in union organizing in the U.S.

According to a December 2019 study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, one out of every five union election campaigns in the U.S. involves a charge that an employer illegally fired a worker for union activity.

U.S. firms spend around $340 million annually on consultants for union avoidance. With coronavirus cases surging in many parts of the U.S., and as millions of Americans remain unemployed, the stakes for union organizing have risen dramatically.

“What we’ve been seeing under COVID are the same dynamics and same tactics as always, except with everything intensified,” said Gordon Laufer, Professor at the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center. “There’s both greater intensity in wanting to organize and more intense fear of employer retaliation.”

“Unfortunately, many employers are responding by resorting to the same, standard intimidation tactics that ‘union avoidance’ consultants have practiced for decades, this time backed up with an even more real and frightening threat of people losing their jobs,” Laufer added

At the independent coffee retail chain Augie’s Coffee in California, 54 employees from all five stores were fired on July 4, shortly after workers informed management a firm majority of workers were in favor of forming a union.

“They held a town hall for all the shops. We showed up and told them we just want union recognition. Management was belittling, telling us we didn’t know what we were doing, that we were going to ruin the company. A week later, they [sent] out a mass email laying everybody off,” said Kelly Bader, a barista for six years, who filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB with other laid-off workers.

He explained support for forming a union started in response to management’s attempt to hire new people to replace workers who didn’t feel comfortable working through the pandemic, as Augie’s Coffee locations remained open. According to Bader, the few baristas who were opposed to forming a union were kept on to work out of Augie’s Coffee roasting facility, which remains open for online coffee orders.

“When Augie’s fired all its staff, it retained those workers, when other warehouse workers fired for being pro-union anymore,” added Bader. Augie’s Coffee would not comment on Bader’s allegations these workers were retained.

Augie’s Coffee denied the firings were retaliatory and cited the coronavirus pandemic as the reason for the store closures.

“It was a matter of time until Augie’s saw COVID infections among staff and customers as well, and preventing this was the main factor behind the final decision to close,” said a spokesperson for Augie’s Coffee in an email.

At Orlando International Airport, retail workers contracted by HMS Host recently filed complaints with the NLRB alleging layoffs and threats toward employees who support unionizing.

Their union election to join UNITE HERE was initially delayed due to the pandemic. In an effort to reschedule the election, HMS Host is argues only workers who have been called back to work—around ten percent of the workforce prior to the pandemic—should be eligible to vote.

“They get to pick and choose who is recalled, who they want to have recalled, so they get to choose who gets to vote, which means they might have the majority, but out of all the workers, the majority want the union,” said Rosanny Tejeda, who worked at Starbucks for HMS Host in the airport for about a year before she was furloughed in March 2020.

HMS Host did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On June 30, the New Museum in New York City laid off 18 full and part-time staff among the 41 employees furloughed in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, despite receiving between $1 million to $2 million in paycheck protection program funds from the federal government.

According to the New Museum Union, the firings were targeted and part of anti-union efforts on behalf of the museum that began when the union first petitioned to form a union in January 2019.

“They laid off the entire union steward committee. All three of us were laid off,” said Dana Kopel,a senior editor and publications coordinator at the museum, who served as the unit chair of the union. ”They laid off the other editor in April, another vocal union supporter, so they have no editors.

Kopel continued, “It’s hard to see how that’s a justified business decision. All four full-time bargaining committee members have been laid off. I felt targeted as a union supporter there for a long time.”

Other museums, including the Philadelphia Art Museum and Tenement Museum in New York City, have also been accused by workers of conducting permanent layoffs targeted against union supporters.

The New Museum denied layoffs were retaliation against union members, and they claimed revenue losses incurred due to the pandemic made layoffs necessary, even with PPP loans.

“The decision to proceed with layoffs during this unprecedented time was extraordinarily difficult and one we had hoped to avoid. We worked hard to preserve as many positions as possible,” a spokesperson for the New Museum stated.

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1