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Ithaca Starbucks Stores Are Union-Busting, But Workers Are Undeterred

Workers are leveraging Starbucks’s labor practices to expose the hypocrisy inherent in the company’s progressive image.

A sign at an event and picket line dubbed the Un-Birthday Party for Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz on July 19, 2022, in New York City.

On a scorching Saturday morning in downtown Ithaca, New York, the Starbucks on the Commons, a large pedestrian shopping area, should have been open for business, serving up 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. But to a handful of members of the Ithaca chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, who had come to the Starbucks with flyers and picket signs in tow, the reason was obvious: Ithaca Solidarity Day. (Disclosure: The author is a member of the New York City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.)

August 6 was supposed to be a day of protest for supporters of Starbucks Workers United (SWU), the group that has helped organize unions at more than 200 Starbucks stores nationwide. Earlier this year, Ithaca, a small city with large contingents of college students and free-spirited hippies, distinguished itself as the first U.S. city where all Starbucks stores had gone union.

It appears that’s why, on Solidarity Day, Starbucks decided not to open its main downtown location. The low-key demonstration migrated to the only other remaining Starbucks in Ithaca, tucked into the corner of a strip mall several blocks away. But Starbucks had apparently prepared for protests there as well, shutting down counter service and allowing only drive-thru orders. 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.”

But the handful of workers and local activists outside were undeterred. 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.”

With the unionization wave spreading rapidly through hundreds of Starbucks stores nationwide, workers have cited safety issues, low pay, erratic scheduling and understaffing as reasons for joining a union. At the height of the pandemic, workers became especially concerned about inadequate health protections and pay as frontline workers were called back to work in person. As Starbucks has 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 workers who have helped organize their stores say they have been unfairly disciplined, had their hours cut or been dismissed in retaliation. Others have quit in 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.”

Benjamin South, a former shift supervisor at a recently closed Starbucks on College Avenue in Ithaca, was fired in early August. (The union charges that his firing was retaliatory, though the formal reason cited by the company was his tweeting about transphobia, according to the union.) Seeing his coworkers get mistreated by management has affirmed his determination to keep organizing.

“We [the workers] saw a lot of turnover as they ramped up their union-busting tactics. 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 (emblazoned with a clenched fist holding a shaker cup). She believes Starbucks is denying her a promotion to shift supervisor because she has been a vocal advocate for the union. “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. When workers began reaching out to SWU in hopes of unionizing, they could draw on the personal connections they had made at the other locations. Though each Ithaca store held its own union election, about 79 workers at 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 in here to make this place safe for my coworkers. And that’s what’s going to happen.”

He pointed out that not all of his coworkers voted for the union, but now that SWU represents all the Starbucks workers in Ithaca, they might come around when they realize the union is defending their rights, too. “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.”

Meanwhile, Starbucks, which did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment, seems to be trying to undermine the inter-store unity. In early June, Starbucks abruptly closed its College Avenue store, leading to the displacement of about 30 workers, as well as subsequent protests and calls for a boycott. The closure followed a one-day strike over what the workers called a major safety hazard involving an overflowing grease trap. The union alleges that the move was aimed at stamping out the union, though it says the company claimed the grease trap was the pretext 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. But SWU, which is part of Workers United, an affiliate of Service Employees International Union, is still pursuing an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging that the store was shuttered without consulting the union, in order to deter organizing.

The union has filed more than 250 unfair labor practice charges alleging that Starbucks has used threats of discipline, discriminatory enforcement of workplace policies, withholding raises and benefits, and other coercive measures to discourage union activity, all while refusing to bargain in good faith with the union. The union claims that Starbucks fired more than 75 workers this year in retaliation for organizing. (However, a district judge in Memphis, Tennessee, recently ordered several workers to be reinstated.) NLRB regional offices have issued 20 official complaints against the company nationwide so far, according to SWU, which is assisting with the litigation.

But 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 reported more than 55 Starbucks strikes 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. The same tension between socially conscious consumers and exploitative companies that market themselves as liberal-minded has helped garner public support for 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.”

As their work environments grow more hostile, local Starbucks workers believe that many of the original union supporters may ultimately be pushed out of the job. But those who remain involved still want to build the union into 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 as the local vanguard of a bigger struggle for social justice. “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.”

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