In April of 2022, workers at a Starbucks in Ithaca, New York, voted 19-1 to unionize with Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), the organizing campaign that has been spreading across the company’s some nine thousand corporate-owned locations in the United States.
The store is on College Ave, near Cornell University, making it one of the busiest Starbucks locations in the area. Even in comparison to the two other Ithaca locations that formed unions, the College Ave workers were particularly well-organized: shortly after their vote, they went on strike over an overflowing grease trap in the store that spilled oil and waste onto the floor, a workplace hazard.
In early June, Starbucks informed the workers that it was closing the location. In communications about the decision, the company cited business concerns, mentioning the grease trap specifically as part of its thinking for shuttering the store. In a statement following the decision, Starbucks spokesperson Reggie Borges said, “We open and close stores as a regular part of our operations.” But for the workers at College Ave, the explanations only confirmed their suspicion: this was retaliation.
“We are the most organized store and we went on strike,” says Nadia Vitek, who worked at the College Ave location. “It was easy for them to isolate our store, shut us down, and feel confident that the other stores wouldn’t have the bandwidth to strike.”
“The College Ave location may be the single most prime property in all of Upstate NY,” wrote former Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick in response to the news. “Over 15,000 pedestrians cross it every day. There’s no way it isn’t profitable. This looks like union busting.” Earlier this month, Ithaca city council approved a resolution calling on Starbucks to reopen the College Ave store and urging the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to take action.
Upon receiving news of the intended closure, SBWU filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge with the NLRB alleging the action — which provided workers only one week of notice before closing a store that has been in operations for more than a decade — violated federal labor law as it was retaliatory against union activity and intended to discourage such activity. That charge joins others filed by SBWU prior to the closure: the union has filed charges against the company at each of the three unionized Ithaca locations, and some forty violations are listed in the complaint at the College Ave store. All of the charges are pending with the NLRB.
In the weeks since the College Ave store’s closure, the workers and Starbucks representatives have been meeting at least once a week to negotiate over what follows from the closure. Workers are eager to be reassigned to other locations, as well as receive guaranteed minimum hours at those stores, but the company has yet to facilitate such transfers and doesn’t intend to do so until all other matters are resolved in negotiations. So the workers remain without their jobs, creating a situation where Starbucks has every incentive to drag out negotiations until the workers become desperate.
“They’re refusing to budge on severance if we decide to quit, which matters because there are some people who feel they can’t go back to this company after what they’ve done to us,” says Vitek. “We want to fight them to get severance, which means more weeks of bargaining. But that also means being in an unstable income situation for longer. It feels like a gamble.”
It’s not only the College Ave workers who are facing dire circumstances.
“At the other stores, people’s hours have been cut more and more,” says Stephanie Heslop, who works at the Meadow Street store, which voted 13-1 to unionize in April. The result has led to a dangerous situation for some of the low-wage workers. One employee at the Commons store, a third unionized Starbucks location in Ithaca, recently collapsed in his apartment building. Vitek, the College Ave worker, went to his residence to assist him and learned that the young worker had been skipping meals to make ends meet after having his hours cut.
“It’s economic and psychological warfare,” says Heslop. “We’re poor, and it is hard to watch this massive company take the money that they have made off our work and turn around and use it to try to crush us. The toll it’s taking on people is really ugly.”
With fewer hours and understaffing, workers at the remaining unionized locations in Ithaca say operations can become chaotic, as customers lose their tempers in response to long wait times. Heslop described a recent scene at the Commons store in which a customer began screaming at workers and recording them with his phone, which led the store to close briefly.
It’s reminiscent of stories told at other locations. At a Denver Starbucks, workers were motivated to organize in part as a result of violence in the workplace: one employee was punched in the face hard enough by a customer that it chipped his tooth.
What happened in Denver following unionization votes, too, is relevant to Ithaca. Nine workers were fired after three of the city’s locations voted to unionize. They allege the terminations were retaliatory. There are dozens of Starbucks workers across the country alleging similar retaliatory firings following unionization drives. The union has been filing complaints with the NLRB to win reinstatement for those workers — in some cases, the Board has found those complaints justified and sought to compel the company to rehire workers — but the understaffed agency can only move so quickly. In the meantime, workers languish without an income, and momentum stalls.
In Ithaca, workers say that the grinding down of employees, the accumulation of time, frustration, and uncertainty, is part of Starbucks’s strategy. If the company can cut hours and impose rigid discipline in understaffed stores, even some ardently pro-union workers will leave, unable to make a living at their job and aware of the likelihood that they might soon be fired for any number of infractions.
“The under-scheduling is genius on their part,” says Heslop, who explains that such practices have increased turnover, pushing out workers who had been with the company for many years. “Customers and our pitiful paychecks punish us and Starbucks can claim that it’s about ‘business needs.’”
According to Vitek, even the lone College Ave worker who voted against unionizing left as a result of poor management, shortly before Starbucks announced its intention to shut the store down.
In response to mounting frustrations, that worker “decided she would take a leave of absence and the manager wouldn’t let her, so she just quit,” recounts Vitek. “I had a conversation with her and while she will probably never change her mind about unions, she said, ‘Yeah, this is union busting.’”
College Ave is no longer the only store facing an abrupt closure. On July 11, Starbucks announced that it would soon close sixteen locations — six each in Los Angeles and Seattle, two in Portland, and one each in Washington, DC and Philadelphia — citing safety concerns. SBWU responded to the announcement by filing a ULP charge with the NLRB, alleging that the closures are retaliation and illegal coercion in response to protected concerted activities. Workers are quick to note that while the number of Starbucks locations in the process of organizing constitute fewer than 1 percent of the company’s total US locations, the planned closures affect several such stores — two of those slated to close are unionized, and one is soon to vote on unionization. The ULP charge seeks injunctive relief for the workers.
The SBWU’s momentum is real, and it is inspiring workers at companies in a variety of sectors — from retail to warehouse work and in between — but as the months drag on, Starbucks is hoping to stamp out such progress. In Ithaca, College Ave’s workers continue their negotiations, noting that while the company has done its worst to them, they aren’t defeated yet.
“They didn’t do this to us just because of us; they did it to send a message that this is a consequence for unionizing your store,” says Vitek. “I don’t want people to be discouraged by what happened to us because while it is a risk, the more people who are in this, the stronger we will be. They did the worst thing they could do to us, but we’re still fighting.”