By Josh Eidelson June 27, 2014
Nearly a decade has passed since Joe Agins Jr., a union organizer, was fired from his job as a barista at Starbucks (SBUX), after he got into a scuffle with a manager that ended with both men yelling obscenities. Agins took his case to the National Labor Relations Board, and now, after much consideration, the federal authorities have determined he should get his job back.
“It’s been, definitely, a very, very long wait,” says Agins, who has worked stints as a Walmart (WMT) employee, a personal-care assistant, and a temp between stretches of unemployment. (He has also had two children and left New York for Massachusetts.)
That nine-year saga started in November 2005, when Agins became a public and prominent supporter of efforts by the Industrial Workers of the World to organize his and other stores. According to the NLRB (pdf), Agins and other workers showed up at their store on their day off wearing union buttons—an act of protest after being told they couldn’t wear them at work. Ifran Yablon, an assistant manager at a different Starbucks, showed up on his time off, too, and started asking Agins about his button. Soon things got heated, and that was when Agins said, “You can go f— yourself, if you want to f— me up, go ahead, I’m here.” Starbucks fired Agins three weeks later, citing his use of profanity.
Agins brought charges to the NLRB accusing Starbucks of illegally punishing him for union activism, and in 2009, the board ruled against the coffee chain, finding Agins’s actions weren’t “so egregious” as to forfeit labor law protection for engaging in union organizing. Starbucks took its case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and in 2012, the court kicked the case back to the NLRB after finding that the 1979 precedent the NLRB had used failed to account for problems with an employee, even an off-duty one, cursing in front of customers rather than just in front of other employees.
After considering the issue for an additional two years, the NLRB’s new decision finds that Agins’s firing was illegal no matter what the circumstances surrounding the swearing, because there was ample evidence that Agins’s union activism contributed to the decision to get rid of him. The NLRB noted that Starbucks didn’t punish some other employees for equivalent cursing—including Yablon, the manager—and that a memo about Agins’s dismissal specifically cited that he “strongly support[ed] the IWW union.”
Agins, who now does maintenance and housekeeping work for a rehab facility, says he “absolutely” wants to pick up his career with Starbucks, although he’d like to get a job in Worcester rather than at his old store in Manhattan. Starbucks, though, could still appeal, kicking off another round of legal deliberation. In an e-mail, a Starbucks spokesperson said, “We’re currently evaluating the Board’s decision to determine next steps.”