Sophia Gluskin-Braun had just helped propel the union to victory at her restaurant job at Logan Airport last week when she reported to work — and was immediately fired.
Her termination report lists her offenses in detail, all of them focused on her union organizing activity: Her actions made the workplace “toxic and hostile,” according to fellow employees, and the “harassment outside of work has gotten to a level of possible police involvement.”
Gluskin-Braun, 27, disputes these allegations, saying she was simply talking to co-workers about the union, which is protected under the National Labor Relations Act. The president of the union, Unite Here Local 26, said the firing was the most blatant act of retaliation he’s ever seen, and charges have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board.
“I’ve never seen a company put what is effectively saying, ‘We’re firing you for exercising your First Amendment rights,’ in writing,” said Carlos Aramayo, president of the hospitality workers union, noting that companies that fire union leaders usually come up with unrelated reasons that don’t violate labor laws. “I think they’re just trying to scare people who support the union.”
Gluskin-Braun worked at Not Your Average Joe’s but was employed by Air Ventures, which operates airport restaurants using menus licensed from other brands. Air Ventures, which employs about 70 newly unionized Logan Airport workers at Not Your Average Joe’s, Peet’s Coffee, Otto, Lucca, and N.e. MKT, declined to comment on the matter or provide employees to affirm the termination report’s assertions.
Unions have been organizing workers at the airport for years. 32 BJ SEIU has nearly 1,000 members who work for airline contractors at Logan. Local 26 has added about 700 members there since 2017, including those who work at Starbucks, Kelly’s Roast Beef, Wahlburgers, and Hudson News. Air Ventures has been a “nightmare,” to deal with, Aramayo said, noting that a majority of workers had already signed cards authorizing the union to represent them and the election was an attempt to decertify that effort.
There has also been a flurry of union activity among food-service and retail employees in recent months, namely at Starbucks, where workers have formed unions at three stores and have filed petitions for elections at more than 100 more around the country, including in Boston. Workers at a number of other Boston-area coffee shops have also formed unions in the past year.
Gluskin-Braun worked for Air Ventures for two years, first at Lucca, then, following a pandemic-induced layoff, as a server and host at Not Your Average Joe’s. She joined the union effort to push for more affordable health insurance and vacation time; currently, employees have no paid vacation days. Fellow union member Fanta Ky, a prep cook at Lucca, said she hasn’t been able to take a vacation since she started working there almost four years ago.
In December, Gluskin-Braun was written up for violating the company’s “solicitation/distribution policy,” which was also related to union organizing, she said.
According to the Feb. 24 termination report, Gluskin-Braun “follows employees out to the parking lot when they get off work” and “interferes with employees’ ability to perform their job” to talk to them about the union. She also “accosts” co-workers “to the point of being physical, to take pictures holding the union signs,” can be “combative,” and “targets English as a Second Language (ESL) employees because they don’t fully understand what she is telling them.”
Gluskin-Braun said the claims are “absolutely ridiculous.” Yes, she’s talked to employees about the benefits of joining a union in the parking lot. And she’s asked people to take photos with pro-union signs. She’s also talked to workers whose first language isn’t English.
But, she said, “I’ve never harassed anyone.”
“It feels like they’re trying to make an example of me and say this is what happens to you if you organize a union.”
Tom Juravich, a labor professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said that the termination appeared to be “blatantly illegal,” and that Gluskin-Braun would likely be reinstated and awarded back pay. But the process won’t be quick, and it could put a damper on newly unionized workers’ excitement — and stall contract negotiations in the process.
“The point is they’ve taken the steam out of the union,” he said. Firing an activist sends a message to workers: “If they can do this to one of their leaders, they can do this to anybody.”
The fact that an employer appears to be flagrantly breaking the law, knowing that it could take a year or more to resolve the NLRB charge and that there’s little recourse beyond being required to pay back wages, shows how weak labor laws are, Juravich said.
“We still have a pretty unlevel playing field,” he said.
Gluskin-Braun said all the union organizing at Logan makes her hopeful about improving “the standard of what it means to have an airport job.” But now she’s worried about paying her bills and disheartened by her former employer’s disregard for its staff.
“I feel like they don’t see me, they don’t us, as humans,” she said. “We’re nothing to them.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story did not spell out the relationship between Not Your Average Joe’s and Air Ventures or make it clear that Gluskin-Braun was fired by Air Ventures. The story has been updated to include this information.
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.