On a quiet Friday afternoon in downtown Ithaca, N.Y., a handful of current and former Starbucks workers, donning their signature green aprons, lined up in front of a microphone across the street from one of the city’s two remaining Starbucks locations. One by one, they testified before a few dozen local protesters about how their jobs had become unbearable in recent months: surveillance, intimidation, and arbitrary discipline by managers—all to punish them for forming a union. And on May 26, Starbucks would be shutting down their union altogether by shutting down the cafés that employed them.
“I have been facing union-busting by Starbucks for a year and a half,” barista and former Cornell student Kolya Vitek told the crowd, “and I can tell you it is disgusting, and it is exhausting and it’s terrible. And I’m mad…. we do not deserve this. We just want rights and we just want dignity.”
The closure of the last two locations in Ithaca appears to be an escalation of what workers describe as a pattern of systematic anti-union abuse at Starbucks stores across the country.
Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), a national network of Starbucks unions backed by the Service Employees International Union, has filed a total of about 500 unfair labor practice charges against the company before the National Labor Relations Board. Last March, a NLRB judge issued a landmark ruling against Starbucks for committing “hundreds of unfair labor practices” during the Buffalo union drive, surveilling and unfairly disciplining workers. Ordering the reinstatement of 30 workers, the judge cited “a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights.”
Benjamin South, a former shift supervisor at the Starbucks in Collegetown, a bustling student neighborhood by the Cornell campus, was not surprised that the company would rather pull out of the city than accept the union; he was fired shortly after a walkout. “It makes me very angry and sad,” he said, “because everybody knew after it happened to me and other people, it was just gonna be a matter of time.… And it’s a little bit bittersweet because it means that they couldn’t stop the union. But for the people without jobs, it’s a scary and terrifying thing.”
Talia Silva Vallejo, who works at the Ithaca Commons location, where workers had gathered, said she was interested in working at Starbucks when she arrived in Ithaca from Chile, because her homeland is arguably the ground zero of Starbucks unionization. Starting in 2009, a robust student movement fueled a successful union drive that eventually organized the vast majority of the country’s outlets.
But Vallejo said she did not expect the level of anti-union hostility from her American Starbucks managers, particularly the targeted enforcement of obscure rules and being constantly monitored by managers, presumably to deter workers from organizing.
“I got, for instance, written up for being [just a few] minutes late,” she recalled. “Others got written up for not smiling enough. So those kinds of attitudes—you can really see that they were trying to, overall, have us fear what they could do.” Ultimately, however, the mistreatment only motivated more workers to organize.
Since Starbucks announced its plan to shutter the remaining two locations, workers have walked out in protest, and students have mobilized to urge Cornell University to cut its business ties to the company.
Commons barista Ian Willing said the disproportionate discipline of pro-union workers (he recalls being sent home for wearing a shirt that was the wrong color) made him want to join the union more. But he will also miss his job—not least because he recently racked up enough hours to qualify for the much-hyped Starbucks college program, which subsidizes workers’ tuition for online coursework. Unless he finds another Starbucks job, he may not be able to continue his schooling. “I like my job. I like being a barista,” he said. “I like saying ‘Hi’ to customers and everything. It’s just the company that makes it miserable to go there, and it makes me scared to show up to work, because I’m scared I’m going to get fired.”
The union struggle in Ithaca goes back to the spring of 2022, when all three Starbucks locations voted overwhelmingly to unionize with SBWU. The Ithaca stores were among the first to unionize in the country, bouncing off the momentum of the first Starbucks union victories in Buffalo. Ithaca has since stood as the only city where every Starbucks is union, while SBWU has now organized around 300 cafés nationwide.
But workers soon began reporting systematic retaliation from management, culminating in the closure of the Collegetown Starbucks after a strike over unsafe working conditions resulting from a failed grease trap.
With the other two stores set to shutter, the workers have filed charges with the NLRB alleging that the closures were “retaliation for union activity and to discourage union activity” and seeking injunctive relief. In the meantime, the union plans to negotiate over severance for the workers. Starbucks, in a statement to The Nation, said that it planned to engage in “effects bargaining,” or negotiations over compensation and transfers that workers might receive. If it finds that the closures were aimed at union busting, the NLRB could also order back pay for the workers or force the locations to reopen.
Several other Starbucks cafés have closed after workers began organizing. Last May, Buffalo Starbucks workers claimed that two stores had been shut down to suppress a union drive, and that July, Starbucks announced the closure of 16 locations in several cities, prompting NLRB complaints from two stores in Seattle that had recently unionized, along with a Portland store just weeks away from a union vote. Starbucks justified the closures as part of an effort to “reinvent” the brand to “recreate an environment…where we uplift one another with dignity, respect and kindness.”
In an e-mail to The Nation, Starbucks stated that it respected workers’ decisions about unionization and that its recent business decisions were aimed at improving the “Starbucks experience” and were unrelated to unionization. In addition, the company contended that the Ithaca locations had suffered from frequent absences, high turnover, and shortages of managers.
Pro-union Starbucks workers argue that the staffing problems had been “manufactured,” with the company deliberately reducing workers’ hours in the months following the union votes. Last year, workers reported that the chronic short staffing at busy stores had intensified a pressure-cooker work environment. One worker told Ithaca Voice that after his hours were cut, he had to “choose between food and being able to pay his rent,” and another said the stress forced her to take a medical leave of absence.
Perhaps the one consequence Starbucks fears is bad publicity. To that end, the news of the closures prompted a group of Cornell undergraduates to work to pressure the administration to “divest” from the company, by getting Starbucks-branded products out of campus dining facilities.
Heading into finals week, the students organized a solidarity rally, marched to the administration’s office building, and occupied the premises through the next morning. The students have had two initial meetings with administrators and begun discussions on the steps for ending the university’s contractual arrangement with Starbucks. (Disclosure: The author is a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell, whose students participated in the campaign.)
The students declared in a statement, “Cornell is not neutral in this fight. By selling Starbucks products in Cornell Dining cafés through the We Proudly Serve Starbucks program, Cornell is actively using students’ tuition to support rampant union-busting.”
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Starbucks chose to shutter its last two stores in Ithaca just as the academic year draws to a close and students are heading home for the summer. But the students behind the divestment campaign have vowed to keep the pressure on the administration through the next semester.
And SBWU workers see themselves continuing the union movement even if their bargaining unit will be effectively dissolved at the end of May.
Evan Sunshine, a Cornell student and barista who has worked for Starbucks since high school, believes the fact that Ithaca was targeted with these closures reflected how effective their organizing was. “We’re so militant.… We experience a lot of unfair labor practices, but the fact is we fight back, where a lot of stores don’t. So that’s kind of what makes us so different.”
If Starbucks were attempting to make an example out of Ithaca, its workers are determined to make their resilience a model for other cities where workers are struggling to organize their stores. Stephanie Heslop, who had never been in a union before her experience at Starbucks, said their movement would outlast their workplace, long after they cast off their aprons.
“I hope the fact that we never stop fighting is inspiring to people because we’ve only ever asked for very reasonable things—things that we deserve. And the fact that they are fighting back this hard, I think, just shows what we’re dealing with,” she said. “They’re never going to give us what we need and deserve. We’re going to have to fight for it. And I’m really proud of my coworkers—that we respect ourselves and each other enough to fight.”