Starbucks on the Commons, a large pedestrian shopping center in Ithaca, New York should have been open for business on a hot Saturday morning. They serve ice-cold, frothy drinks. Yet the storefront was dark: A note posted in the window stated only, “Our Store is Temporarily Closed,” with no further explanation. Ithaca Solidarity Day was the reason that a few members of the Ithaca chapter of Democratic Socialists of America arrived at the Starbucks with flyers in hand. (Disclosure – The author is a member of New York City Chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.
August 6 was supposed as a day of protest by supporters Starbucks Workers United(SWU), which is the group that has helped organize unions in more than 200 Starbucks locations across the country. Ithaca, a small town with many college students and free-spirited hippies, was recognized earlier this year as “The City That Made Ithaca Great” the first U.S. cityWhere all Starbucks stores have gone union.
It appears that’s why, on Solidarity Day, Starbucks decided not to open its main downtown location. The protesters moved on to the last remaining Starbucks in Ithaca. It was located in a corner of a strip mall just a few blocks away. Starbucks apparently prepared for protests at Ithaca by closing down counter service, allowing only drive-thru customers and shutting down counter service. Union supporters were effectively preempted from undertaking the planned solidarity action — pointedly ordering cups of water, on which workers would scrawl pro-labor phrases like “union strong.”
The handful of workers and local activists were not deterred. Outside the store’s entrance, they passed out flyers to passersby, telling them that Starbucks were “union busters” and were cracking down on pro-union employees.
Asked what it was about Ithaca that had enabled SWU to sweep all the local Starbucks locations, Virgil Taylor, a young union member with hot-pink hair who had worked at the Commons location, said, “Ithaca’s resilient; we come together — no matter what, people will come together in Ithaca.”
Unionization has been spreading quickly through hundreds upon hundreds of Starbucks stores across the country. Workers have cited safety concerns, low wages, erratic scheduling, and understaffing to be reasons they joined a union. Workers were particularly concerned about poor health protections and inadequate pay at the height of the pandemic. Starbucks has a history of doing just that waged its own campaign of anti-union messaging — with meetings and text messages touting Starbucks’s pay and benefits and suggesting that unions could actually worsen their labor conditions — workers have added anti-union intimidation and propaganda to their grievances.
Some employees who helped organize their stores claim they were unfairly disciplined, had to work fewer hours or were fired in retaliation. Others quit out of frustration.
Taylor said he was planning on quitting soon, but remained committed to the union and his coworkers, who had seen their hours dramatically cut back in recent months: “I stuck around because I wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to get even more fucked on hours, because we’re closing because of lack of staffing. All the people kept quitting left and right.”
Ben South, a former supervisor at a Starbucks on College Avenue in Ithaca that had recently closed, was fired in early August. (The union claims that his firing was retaliatory. However, the union claims that the official reason was his tweeting about transphobia. He was proud to see his coworkers treated badly by management.
“We [the workers]They saw a lot more turnover as they intensified their union-busting strategies. And that’s what made me stay there,” South said. “We saw very supportive union partners, [and] people who didn’t even really care about the union, get pushed out. They just don’t care. … They just want to make it as hard of a place to work [as possible] … until nobody supports the union anymore.”
“There is this narrative that we’re treated really well and that we have it really good, but it’s just not true,” said Stephanie Heslop, a barista at the strip mall Starbucks who showed up for the day of action on her day off, wearing a Starbucks Workers United shirt (emblazonedWith a clenched hand, she holds a shaker cup in her hands. Because she is a vocal supporter of the union, Starbucks is refusing her a promotion as a shift supervisor. “A part-time job that pays $16 an hour and gives you free Spotify is not enough to live on,” she said. “And the fact that … they are consciously trying to make our lives harder when we are the ones who make the billions in profit for this company … is appalling.”
South noted that Starbucks “shoot[s] themselves in the foot” by encouraging its local outlets to operate as “family stores,” regularly circulating workers across locations. The personal connections workers made at other locations allowed them to reach out to SWU and help them unionize. Each Ithaca store had its own union election. However, there were 79 workers in all three stores. voted together on April 8.
That’s why SWU members bristle at one of the typical anti-union talking points that is used by management: that a union would be a “third party” that would interfere with the company’s relationship with its workforce.
“Literally, I’ve worked at some form of Starbucks for seven years,” South said. “So I didn’t come in here to corrupt anybody. I came here to make the place safe for my coworkers. And that’s what’s going to happen.”
He said that not all his coworkers had voted for the union. But now that SWU represents all Starbucks workers, they might start to realize that the union is protecting their rights. “When we need to be there for them, we’ll be there for them. And sometimes that’s what it takes to make people realize who’s actually on their side. Unions are about workers, not about politics,” he said. “So working-class issues are not conservative, they’re not liberal, they’re not leftist. And when you show someone how bad the death grip of capitalism is, when they feel that, the rhetoric that they’ve been fed for years goes away pretty quickly.”
Starbucks, however, did not respond. Truthout’sComment,It appears that they are trying to undermine inter-store unity. Starbucks opened its first store in June. abruptly closed its College Avenue storeThis caused the displacement of approximately 30 workers as well as subsequent protests. calls for a boycott. After a one-day strike, the closure was triggered by a major safety hazard that workers called a grease trap overflowing. Although the union claims that the move was intended to discredit the union, it insists that the company claimed that the grease trap was the reason for the closure. In mid-August, Starbucks came to an agreement with the union to transfer the store’s workers to Ithaca’s two other Starbucks locations. SWU, a member of Workers United, is still pursuing an unjust labor practice charge with NLRB. They claim that the store was closed down without consulting the union to prevent organizing.
The union has filed more 250 unfair labor practice charges against Starbucks, alleging that they used discriminatory enforcement of workplace policies and threatened with discipline. withholding raises and benefits, and other coercive methods to discourage union activity. The union claims that Starbucks is a union member. Starbucks claims that the union is stealing their rights. fired more than 75 workersThis year as a retaliation against organizing. However, a Memphis district judge recently ordered that several workers be reinstated. 20 complaints have been filed against the company by NLRB regional offices across the country. according to SWU, which is assisting with the litigation.
However, NLRB cases can take months to litigate, so in the meantime, SWU is driving a pressure grassroots campaign to leverage Starbucks’s own marketing image as a hip, progressive lifestyle brand in order to shame the company and garner sympathy from the coffee-drinking public. The union has reportedMore than 55 Starbucks strikes have been made in 17 states.
South said that worker-organizers seek to leverage Starbucks’s reputation as a progressive company — with its promises of college scholarships for baristas and charity grants for Global South coffee farmers — by exposing the contradictions in its labor practices. Many of the college students and faculty who constitute a large portion of Ithaca’s population are especially sensitive to the corporate hypocrisy. Public support has been derived from the tension between socially conscious customers and exploitative companies that promote themselves as liberal-minded. other union drives at retail giants like Apple and Trader Joe’s.
“People see through it,” South said. “The most important part is that customers are seeing through it. And Starbucks doesn’t listen to anything but money. So now that all these workforces are mobilizing in industries that depend on the money and support of people that come in, I think it’s going to be a really different landscape for workers in about a year or two.”
Many local Starbucks workers fear that their work environment will become more hostile and they may be forced to leave the company. However, those who are still involved want to make the union a permanent Ithaca institution. “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Heslop said, “and maybe the best thing I’ll ever do in my life. But it’s also very, very hard.”
Heslop sees the union a local vanguard of a larger struggle for justice and social equity. “There is massive inequality and catastrophic climate change, all kinds of bad things happening,” she said. “And we need to change things, and we need people to fight back. …I’m a very small part of it, but I’m a part of it. And that is very meaningful to me.”