Ithaca Starbucks workers fight back against massive store closures

Buffalo, New York

Starbucks workers at The Commons in Ithaca, New York — the first place in the U.S. to unionize all the Starbucks stores in their city — have walked out on strike after management threatened to shut down every store in town. The closure announcement follows the company shutting down one store and firing union supporters over the last few months. Workers plan to strike until their jobs are ensured.

Students and baristas occupy Cornell University, demanding the school terminate its sale of Starbucks products. Credit: DaniellefromMA on Twitter

Students at Cornell University, located in Ithaca, have called actions in solidarity with the baristas. While Starbucks plans to close all its storefronts in the city, the university continues to sell Starbucks products on campus through Cornell Dining. Students rallied in Ho Plaza on May 11, demanding the university terminate all relations with Starbucks, publicly release the terms of Cornell’s current contract with the company and commit to collaborating with student advocates on a new campuswide coffee vendor, which meets ethical standards, by fall 2023.

Campus organizers set up a table to sell the union-brand Gimme Coffee, raising money for Starbucks Workers United’s strike fund. Cornell University officials responded by calling the police on the students. When police arrived, they claimed the problem was that “students were taking business away from the café.” Is that not the point of a boycott? Evidently, the university and police, staying true to their role as strikebreakers and bullies for the ruling class, have no problem with Starbucks routinely violating the law across the city. 

Students then occupied the office of the university’s president in a fiery show of solidarity with the striking workers.

The closure of all Starbucks stores in an entire city, where the stores have 100% union density, is a viciously immoral and criminal example of union busting, even by Starbucks standards. But this heavyweight union-busting champion has shown nothing but disregard for labor rights, ever since the beginning of the union drive in Buffalo. 

There has been a particular escalation since former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was called to testify about his illegal tactics before the U.S. Senate, where he was forced to go head-to-head against his own workers from across the country who gave testimony.

Retaliation following Senate hearing

Within a day or two of returning from the hearing, Starbucks workers who had participated in the Senate hearing and in the movement in Buffalo experienced retaliation. A string of firings ensued at different stores, notably of Lexi Rizzo from the Genesee Street store in Buffalo — the lead organizer of the second unionized store in the U.S. 

Rizzo was fired for being late, after being forced to regularly close the store late at night and then return only a few hours later to open in the morning. The practice, referred to as “clopening” by Starbucks workers, has been a point of contention of workers against managers who make the schedules. 

When workers confronted the district manager about the scheduled clopening shifts at Rizzo’s store shortly before her firing, they were falsely told “Starbucks doesn’t schedule clopener shifts,” claiming it goes against company policy. Rizzo had worked at Starbucks for nearly eight years and was one of the architects of the entire union campaign.

Gianna Reeve was written up for “closing the blinds in the store on a sunny day.” Reeve had confronted Schultz both at the Senate hearing and during his famous union-busting speech made in Buffalo last year, where Reeve asked him to sign fair election principles. Reeve is a high-profile union organizer, certainly a company target.

With the enormous negative press coverage, endless filings of Unfair Labor Practice charges, for which Starbucks is frequently found guilty, and with the situation even brought to the floor of the U.S. Senate, how is it possible that Starbucks can continue to violate the law in Ithaca and Buffalo? How does this happen and especially under the self-proclaimed “most pro-labor president in U.S. history?”

Despite photo ops and twitter posts by President Joe Biden, claiming to have the workers’ interests at heart, the Democrats have yet to lift a finger for working people — whether Starbucks baristas or rail workers who were egregiously shafted by the Democrats in their 2022 forced freight rail contracts. 

Clearly the state apparatus, from the cops to the courts to both ruling-class parties, will continue to uphold the interests of these union-busting transnational corporations. Workers need a movement, based on their own class interests, that operates independently from the Democratic Party machine.

Arjae Red was an organizer with Starbuck Workers United in Buffalo.

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