Militant Journalism

Ithaca Starbucks’ workers fights back against closure

Workers at a recently-unionized Starbucks in Ithaca, New York, staged a “sip-in” protest and speak-out after the Starbucks corporate office announced that the location would be closing permanently on June 10. The June 8 demonstration demanded that the location remain open and that working conditions be improved. Friends and neighbors of the Starbucks workers turned out, with dozens of people standing outside the shop in the June heat to express solidarity.

Starbucks union drive takes Ithaca by storm

Shortly after December 2021, when workers in Buffalo, New York, won the vote to become the first unionized Starbucks location in the United States, efforts began to replicate their success in Ithaca. Unsurprisingly, the Ithaca workers — many of whom are college students — were immediately met with a host of illegal union-busting tactics on the part of Starbucks: the company introduced new and more hostile management to each of the three stores in Ithaca, and denied requests for time off during school breaks. 

But the efforts of the Ithaca workers paid off in full. On April 8, all three Starbucks locations in Ithaca voted to join the Starbucks Workers United union, with only three votes against the union being cast across the entire city. This resounding victory made Ithaca the first city in the United States in which every single Starbucks location is unionized.

Illegal retaliation against union efforts

On June 3, workers at Starbucks’ College Avenue location were informed that their shop would be indefinitely shuttered on June 10. The company cited a host of spurious reasons for the closure: unsafe working conditions caused by a broken grease trap, space concerns and vague “time and commitment” issues. Starbucks’ stated reasons for the closure were obvious red herrings. “They listed the grease trap [which the College Avenue Starbucks workers had gone on strike over in April], they listed space — which, we’re the biggest store in Ithaca — and they mentioned us not having an extra ice bin—which we have three ice bins,” said Bek, one of the College Avenue Starbucks workers. Additionally, none of the workers’ questions, such as whether they would be relocated to other stores, were answered. Starbucks’ corporate management only asserted that they would be negotiating in good faith.

The College Avenue location is located in Ithaca’s Collegetown neighborhood, right next to Cornell University. Its proximity to tens of thousands of students means the store is extremely well-located and highly unlikely to ever be unprofitable. This fact, among others, led Starbucks workers and community members to conclude that Starbucks’ closure of the location — only a few weeks after the end of Cornell’s spring semester — was a clear-cut case of illegal anti-union retaliation.

Starbucks workers fight back

Upon learning that their location would be closing with only seven days’ notice, the workers at the College Avenue Starbucks called upon the community to show their support for the union. Students and residents alike ordered iced water under the name “Union Strong,” left large tips, and stood outside chanting pro-union slogans until the end of the baristas’ shift. Once the store closed for the day, the College Avenue workers and other representatives of Starbucks Workers United spoke out against Starbucks’ anti-union tactics. 

“We’re going to call for an Ithaca-wide boycott of Starbucks. All Starbucks listens to is money, and we can take that away from them because we have the power of the community, we have the power of the union, and they have to listen to us,” said Ben, a worker at Starbucks’ College Avenue location. Gary Bonadonna Jr. the head of the Central New York branch of Workers United Upstate New York, underscored the national significance of the fight against Starbucks’ anti-union practices. “What does it show? They closed the store because they’re scared of the workers. Starbucks is using them as an example to intimidate and threaten baristas all across the country from forming a union.”

Lucas, one of the employees of the Sciencenter museum who turned out in support of the Starbucks union, identified the Ithaca workers’ cause as a quintessential example of class struggle in action: “Howard Schultz [the CEO of Starbucks] was rumored to be Hillary Clinton’s pick for Secretary of Labor. I think that sort of shows you the nature of the conflict here. Management works against individual workers; they divide and conquer; they turn people against each other. The defense for that is workers banding together in solidarity. And if they can’t defeat individual workers at a store then they can pick out individual stores and close those down. I think banding together, creating solidarity within classes, creating class solidarity, and solidarity across stores is the answer. This is a war against capital.”

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