Sam Amato was a customer service representative for more than 12 years. He chatted with customers every day for over a dozen years. He witnessed their children grow up. Starbucks customers and coworkers are some of his closest friends.
He chokes up as he recalls them.
“Just being in the store every day, and seeing these people, and talking to them, and making their drinks,” he says. “It was really an honor to do that.”
According to his colleagues, Amato was everything Starbucks could wish for in an employee. He was a veteran shift supervisor who knew the company’s rules and standards inside and out. He admired the company’s mission and values. He was a great coworker and was supportive of the company’s mission.
“Sam is exemplary,” said Joe Callicutt, a shift supervisor who worked with Amato. “He, more so than anyone I believe on the team, is very passionate about upholding Starbucks’ mission and values, and the standards of operation as well.”
So, it was a shock to everyone when, on Friday, August 5, 2022, Amato was unceremoniously fired — just shy of 13 years from the first day he clocked in at Starbucks on August 13, 2009.
For Amato, there’s no question about why he was let go.
“Without a single doubt,” he told Truthout, “I think that Starbucks fired me in retaliation for being a union leader, and being outspoken about making sure that my store is a safe, respectful and professional workplace.”
Almost immediately after he was fired, Amato’s fellow partners walked out of the store and went on strike. The store — located in Tonawanda, New York, just outside Buffalo’s city lines — remained shut down for over a week.
The strike also went viral. TikTok recordingOver 25 million people have viewed the August 5th walkout.
Amato’s firing and the subsequent walkout and strike come as Starbucks’s management escalates its crackdown on workers. According to Starbucks Workers United, 75 workers have been fired by the company for participating in union activities this year. Guardian.
But even by Starbucks’s anti-union standards, the firing of Amato — a longtime partner with a stellar reputation — feels egregious.
And while Amato’s firing sparked the walkout and the strike, it was also the breaking point for many workers whose frustration with the company had been building up for months.
Targeted for Organization
Amato’s store was one of the first to unionize, in March 2022. While the renovations were underway at its permanent location at Sheridan Drive in Amherst and Bailey Avenue in Amherst (a suburb of Buffalo), the store was temporarily moved to Tonawanda. Partners referred to the store as “Sheridan and Bailey” even while they were momentarily working at the Tonawanda location
Many workers at the store complain about poor working conditions and poor management decisions. They see this as retaliation to unionizing.
First, the corporate offices inundated the store with additional managers during the initial stages of the union drive. By one worker’s account, 10 store managers and six district managers came through their location over the course of several months, along with a host of corporate employees.
Workers claimed this was an attempt by Starbucks intimidation and frazzlement to get them ready for the union vote.
The store was unionized and the staffing was cut. The store’s personnel plummeted from around 49 staff to just 17, according to two partners — far too few workers to keep up with the customer’s high demand.
“It just got to a point where we were like, if we’re not going to be staffed correctly, we can’t successfully perform our jobs,” said Tati Gurskiy, a shift supervisor at the store.
Workers believed they were being punished and set up to fail — all in retaliation for unionizing.
Workers told Truthout The company also reduced hours. Management informed partners that unionized stores would not be eligible for new benefits such as raises or new training programs. However, the company refused to negotiate with the union. Many partners were unhappy with the new manager of the store.
In early July, workers were so fed up that they went on a one day strike against unfair labor practices (ULP). The union filed a charge against the government the day before the strike. National Labor Relations Board that claimed, among other things, Starbucks had engaged for months in “coercive and retaliatory activity” against partners at the store, “including threatening to discipline employees” and “penalizing employees by sending them home early.”
Amato was a leader in that one-day striking. Management shared the following letter with Starbucks: TruthoutThe Sheridan-Bailey partners demanded an end of retaliation against union, a full store meeting and the receipt of any new benefits offered by Starbucks. They also requested sufficient hours to meet customer demands.
Amato believes that his involvement in the ULP strike was a factor in his firing.
“I felt like I’ve had a target on my back,” he said. “I’ve been very vocal about my support for the union. Every day, I wear a union badge to work. I’ve been in publications. I’ve been in interviews.”
Striking was the Last Resort
Amato was fired in this setting when he came to work on August 5th for his afternoon shift.
Amato said his supervisor told him that he was being “separated” because he closed the store lobby to new customers during a previous shift.
Amato claims he did not close the lobby. However, he and other workers believe it was a wise decision. The store was down to three workers, and they said Starbucks’s management has told supervisors that they can modify operations when short-staffed.
Amato called the union’s lawyer, who came to the store, along with several other Starbucks workers. A leaked videoShows Amato and his lawyer repeatedly telling store management that Amato didn’t make the decision not to close the lobby. Management was unwilling to give any details.
(Starbucks told) Truthout that Amato is no longer with the company for “store policy violations” and that he “did not adhere to Starbucks store closing policies.”)
Meanwhile, the store’s partners overheard everything that was happening. Amato gave the partners hugs and said his farewells after being fired.
Gurskiy, who was the shift supervisor at that time, said Truthout that the majority of the staff on the floor didn’t want to continue working. The union’s lawyer told them they were legally protected if they chose to take action — advice that helped stiffen their resolve.
“We were just like, this is not fair, this is not right,” Gurskiy said. “If we continue to work, it’s almost like Starbucks wins, even though we know that they just wrongfully terminated Sam.”
That’s when they made the decision to walk out.
Gurskiy locked the register and handed the keys to the manager of the store. She then told her that they were on strike. She led the floor staff — including four baristas and another shift supervisor — out the entrance. It’s a scene that has now beenYou can be viewed by millions of people through social media.
After everything they’d gone through in the past several months, said Gurskiy, Amato’s firing was the “final straw.”
“Because it was Sam who was getting terminated, we knew he genuinely didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “There was no other solution that I could think of to help besides us going on strike.”
“I think that that really makes a statement,” she added, “to say that we are not going to continue to allow Starbucks to break the rules and treat us like this, so unfairly.”
Demanding Fired Worker’s Reinstatement
The Tonawanda shop remained closed after the August 5 walkout and for the entire week thereafter.
The festive and well-attended actions outside the store on Delaware Avenue were well attended. A recent “Night Strike” attended by dozens of Starbucks workers and supporters occurred under a purple sky with pop music blaring. Strikers wore neon glow bracelets and took selfies while laughing, dancing, and laughing. They held up signs that read “Reinstate Sam” and “Retaliation is Toxic.”
Supporters driving by honked at non-stop. One of Amato’s favorite customers visited to offer her support.
“I had a moment to talk to her, and say my goodbyes,” he said, choking up. “And it was just really touching. I’ll miss all of those people.”
A big part of what’s motivating the strikers remains the utter shock that someone like Amato — a nearly 13-year Starbucks veteran, a sweet and supportive coworker, a customer favorite — could be so abruptly terminated.
Callicutt believes Starbucks wants to be like Amato because of his leadership and support for the union.
“If Starbucks is going to make an example of someone who is so passionate for the company,” they said, “then they’ll have no issue in making examples of the rest of us.”
Callicutt says the strike is important because Starbucks “need[s] to know that we’re willing to stand up for our rights.”
Brian Murray, another Buffalo-area Starbucks partner, says that Amato represents “that kind of old guard of Starbucks workers” who “really cares and believes in the company’s mission and values.”
“He’s just extremely dedicated to Starbucks,” said Murray. “They’re firing him for being a union leader.”
Social media has seen support for the workers grow. GoFundMe pages set up for Amato and Bailey strikers raised $8,000.
According to the report, Starbucks workers across the country have been involved in more than three dozen strikes over the past month. Cornell-ILR Labor Action Tracker.
After more than a week, the partners from the Sheridan and Bailey store remain on strike — though as of Monday, August 15, they had moved their picket back to the actual Sheridan and Bailey store location, which they say was scheduled to reopen that day. The Sheridan and Bailey location remains closed, but the Tonawanda location is now open.
Amato must be reinstated, the workers demand. They also want to end union busting and have their issues with store management addressed.
Amato is still heartbroken by his firing, but he feels lifted by the support he received from his coworkers as well as supporters nationwide.
“Just to know that they support me, it’s powering me through this,” he said.
Amato is also grateful for the union.
“If I didn’t have the union and I was just fired, I would be lost. I would absolutely be devastated,” he said. “I’m so grateful that they’re here to have my back.”
Workers Find Solidarity Among Retaliation
Meanwhile, the firing of a respected, longtime employee signals the continued escalation of Starbucks’s assault against the union drive.
“It’s a remarkably unlawful and remarkably ferocious anti-union campaign,” John Logan, an expert on the anti-union industry at San Francisco State University, told Truthout.
“We haven’t seen many campaigns like this over the past few decades, just in terms of the sheer numbers of [Unfair Labor Practices], the range of different unlawful tactics, and the brazenness of the illegality,” said Logan.
The Sheridan and Bailey stores partners are determined to get Amato back and have their grievances resolved.
“I think collectively, as a team,” said Gurskiy, “we’ve never been on the same page more than we are right now.”