Starbucks doubles down on intimidating Ithaca workers, permanently closes all stores
Starbucks workers in Ithaca on the picket line during a strike last November. The coffee corporation has responded to workers' organizing efforts by closing all its stores in the city. | via Ithaca SBWU

ITHACA, N.Y.—“100% union. 100% closed. 100% immoral.” That’s how members of Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) sum up the company’s plan to shutter all its stores in Ithaca, N.Y., on May 26.

Workers at the Commons location, by the city’s popular pedestrian mall, learned of the closures at work on Friday. District Manager Andrew Sugar read a prepared statement citing “financial and operational needs” as the reason for shutting down the store. When asked about the possibility of transferring to the Meadow Street location, Sugar said that outlet would be permanently closed as well.

Employees who weren’t at work were notified by phone that afternoon—“out of respect,” according to the company representative who left a voice mail to tell workers they would be out of a job. That message, provided by a worker at the Commons store, blamed “staffing difficulties” and “operational performance” for the store closures.

(Roughly translated, staffing difficulties means “our workers voted to unionize,” while  operational performance refers to the employer’s ability to do whatever the hell they want.)

For Evan Sunshine, a leader in the organizing drive, the closures hit especially hard because of what Starbucks workers have already been through in their struggle to win a union.

“This comes a year after they closed my original home store, the College Avenue store,” Sunshine says. “I am reliving my fear, my sadness, and my anger. Starbucks is targeting me and my coworkers…who joined together to form a union because we wanted better. Because we wanted more democracy in the workplace.”

Ithaca was the first city where Starbucks workers were able to organize every store, winning recognition at all three locations in a near-unanimous vote on April 8, 2022. They carried that victory despite a vicious union-busting campaign. Charges brought by SBWU on behalf of Ithaca workers, detailed in a consolidated complaint issued against Starbucks by the NLRB, include:

  • Threatening that trans employees would lose coverage for gender-affirming health care if they chose to organize;
  • Removing and discarding union material posted in the store while allowing other non-work-related materials;
  • Cutting shifts for current workers (often below the level required to qualify for benefits), while hiring new workers;
  • Denying leave requests, transfer requests, and promotions for employees participating in the organizing drive; and
  • Writing up and firing employees in retaliation for organizing activity.

“It was always kinda bad,” says Caroline Feindel, a former employee, “but it got a thousand times worse as soon as the union drive started: the disrespect, the misgendering, the intentional understaffing and underscheduling, the outright bullying…the way management would just walk in and demand we do things differently.”

Even after the union recognition vote, Starbucks refused to sit down and bargain in good faith.

Just two months later, in June 2022, the company stepped up its union-busting campaign by closing the store on College Avenue, where union support was particularly strong.

The workers filed a complaint with the NLRB, which determined that Starbucks had retaliated against workers for exercising their right to organize. In November, the NLRB’s regional director notified Starbucks of its findings and requested a court order forcing the company to re-open the store and compensate employees for the losses they suffered.

Instead of heeding the NLRB’s warning, Starbucks decided to double down by closing its Commons and Meadow Street locations as well.

This new round of store closures shows the company’s contempt for its workers and for the law. Starbucks would rather shoot itself in the pocketbook than show the barest minimum of respect for the people who make the drinks and mop the floors.

Ithaca Common Council member Jorge DeFendini, one of three socialists elected to the city’s governing body, calls the company’s behavior “revolting.”

Red Cup Rebellion: Starbucks workers in Ithaca on strike last November. | via Ithaca SBWU

“The workers have…shown people you can fight back against corporate greed and employer abuse and win. Meanwhile, corporate and management have thrown everything at them, going so far as to sabotage their own business model in closing profitable stores to send a message…that nothing but absolute subservience will be tolerated.”

A Starbucks barista can make you just about any drink, just about any way you want—but corporate intimidation and union-busting are orders they won’t take. With their jobs and their union on the line, Ithaca Starbucks workers aren’t backing down.

Plans for the fightback have not yet been finalized, but the workers have set up a strike and relief fund and called a rally for 5 p.m. on Friday, May 12, at the Bernie Milton Pavilion on the Ithaca Commons.

Although the company is closing its three Ithaca stores, it is still selling its products in town through contracts with other businesses and institutions. Students at Cornell are organizing a letter-writing campaign to get the university drop Starbucks as a vendor. Their letter is available here; supporters can send their own here.

For updates, follow Ithaca SBWU (@SBWorkersIthaca) on Twitter, and sign the No Contract, No Coffee pledge to support Starbucks Workers United.

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Scott Hiley
Scott Hiley

Scott Hiley has taught French, literature, history, and philosophy at the high school, college, and post-graduate levels. He is active in struggles against austerity and for education justice and labor rights. His articles have appeared in People’s World (U.S.),  Morning Star (UK), and l’Humanité (France). He lives in a rural town in upstate NY.