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labor A New York Starbucks Abruptly Closed – Was It Retaliation for a Union Drive?

Workers in Ithaca say closure represents pure opposition from Starbucks, whose CEO says he will "never embrace the union."

Several weeks after Starbucks workers in Ithaca, New York, voted to unionize, the company announced with just a week’s notice that their store on College Avenue, one of three in Ithaca, would be shut down. Starbucks claimed the decision to close was unrelated to unionization and was due to a problem with the grease trap system. Workers felt the store closure was retaliatory to the union.

The dispute is just one of many that newly unionized workers can expect in the coming months. Starbucks workers have driven an unprecedented wave of union organizing victories, in the face of fierce opposition from the company. Now comes the hard part – agreeing a contract and moving forward with a company determined to stamp out its nascent union movement.

Evan Sunshine, a barista at the Starbucks in Ithaca that closed, sees the closure as a continuation of union opposition he experienced leading up to the workers’ election win.

“It was retaliation because we had the strongest union sentiments at our store,” said Sunshine. “It’s prime property – there’s just no reason for them to close. The rest of the reasons are all really minuscule – it didn’t make any sense.”

Unionization efforts at the store began in October, but gradually grew. After the Christmas holiday break, Sunshine and his co-workers gathered union authorization cards at all three stores in Ithaca and filed for union elections.

Starbucks management and corporate executives flooded the stores. Sunshine said workers were frequently subjected to one-on-one listening sessions with managers, faced constant surveillance and experienced intimidation. Pro-union flyers were removed from anywhere in the store, workers were denied time off requests during school breaks. He said store management even stopped customers from being able to change their name in the Starbucks app to something union-related to show their support.

Despite the opposition, Sunshine’s store voted 19-1 in favor of unionizing, along with the two other Starbucks locations in Ithaca.

He now currently works at a unionized Starbucks in Virginia while completing a summer internship in Washington, but has traveled to Ithaca to participate in community events in support of Starbucks workers and a local boycott against the company to protest against his store’s closure.

“[Starbucks chief executive] Howard Schultz says he will never embrace the union,” said Sunshine. “All we can do really is stand up against that, hope the NLRB [National Labor Relations Board, the agency which enforces US labor law] continues to take our side, keep fighting the legal battle, in the long run, take collective action, hope the community gets involved. In the end, if it gets serious and stores aren’t getting union contracts, no coffee. No contract, no coffee.”

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Since the first Starbucks store in the US unionized in December, organizing has surged, with about 300 stores filing for union elections in total. One hundred and sixty-nine stores have won their elections so far, in spite of staunch opposition from Starbucks, and workers have filed numerous complaints alleging widespread union-busting and retaliation, which Starbucks has denied.

“While the workers are doing their part with their amazing organizing and working on their proposals, what we really need is that the public and political leaders demand that Schultz, Mellody Hobson [Starbuck’s chair] and the entire board end their union-busting,” said Richard Bensinger, an organizer with Starbucks Workers United.

“That kind of pressure is necessary to get Starbucks to bargain in good faith. The workers are going to keep fighting and keep growing their union until this corporation decides to end its war on its workers.”

As of 24 June, 212 unfair labor practice cases had been filed against Starbucks across 25 states, according to the NLRB. Eleven complaints covering 66 charges have been issued by NLRB regions, with 10 complaints awaiting a hearing before a judge and one complaint awaiting a board decision.

In May, Starbucks announced investments and wage increases for workers company-wide, but appeared to claim to be unable to guarantee that pay increases would be implemented in stores that have unionized, or where union activity is taking place. In June, the company appears to have cited the same qualification for extending travel benefits for abortion access to workers with health insurance coverage through the company.

Starbucks workers have engaged in strikes to protest against union-busting and to demand recognition of their unions across the country and Starbucks Workers United recently established a $1m strike fund to cover lost wages and benefits for workers on strike.

“The main reason that we’re striking is labor cuts. All the people at our store are struggling to make rent, to make ends meet. Even with our normal hours that we were getting, it was hard to make rent each month, and now everyone has had to pick up a second, third, in some cases, even fourth job,” said Leah Grimm, a barista at the Bloomfield store in Pittsburgh, where workers recently went on strike to protest against unfair labor practices and scheduling cuts.

Grimm said she had to get a second job as a server to compensate for the income lost to reduced work hours, and that many of her co-workers have resorted to selling plasma to try to fill in the gaps.

“The reason that we’re doing this is because we like our jobs and we want it to be a sustainable job,” added Grimm.

Starbucks has fired over 40 workers involved in union organizing efforts since December, many of whom are pushing for reinstatement through the National Labor Relations Board and have participated in protests of their firings.

Cathy Creighton, a labor attorney and director of Cornell University industrial and labor relations Buffalo Co-Lab, said that under US labor laws, employers are not bound to reach a collective bargaining agreement. But she noted that the NLRB general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, recently filed a motion to overturn a 1952 ruling that would make workers whole in cases where collective bargaining is delayed by employers.

“The employer does not have to reach an agreement with the union but the workers can go on strike. And that also goes into the difficulties with US labor law with that, because if workers go on an economic strike, they can be permanently replaced by their employer,” said Creighton. “According to Gallup polling, we know that 68% of Americans support the right to unionization, so I’m not sure why Starbucks is fighting so hard. I feel like it’s ruining its own brand.”

Nabretta Hardin worked as a barista at a Starbucks in Memphis, Tennessee, for over a year before she was fired, one of seven terminated shortly after launching a union campaign at her store, including five other co-workers who served on the organizing committee.

Since her firing in March, Hardin explained it had been difficult to find other work, especially due to the way in which she and her co-workers were terminated. She also lost stock options she had just recently qualified for after hitting her one-year mark as an employee.

Hardin said union organizing became a topic of discussion in her store in late December in the wake of the first Starbucks corporate store union win in Buffalo. Her store’s union campaign went public on Martin Luther King Day in January. She said Starbucks immediately began its anti-union campaign at the store.

“We started getting heavy surveillance, spies from corporate, an increased presence of our district and regional managers,” said Hardin.

In March, the Memphis area was hit with an ice storm that knocked out power for much of the area, including the Starbucks store. Hardin said when workers were called into the store to meet with management to hear about Starbucks’ plans, she and her co-workers were given termination slips.

She expressed dismay toward Starbucks for how it has responded to the union organizing campaigns, but said that a May NLRB decision in workers’ favor is an exciting sign in hopes that those efforts by Starbucks are failing.

“It shows people that we were wrongfully terminated, that the government also thinks that we were wrongfully terminated, and we will get repercussions,” added Hardin.

On 7 June, despite the firing of several union leaders, the Memphis Starbucks location voted in favor of unionizing. The court proceedings over the firings are continuing.

A spokesperson for Starbucks claimed the Memphis workers were terminated following an investigation over safety and security violations. They denied all allegations of retaliation and argued Starbucks will bargain in good faith at stores that have chosen to unionize.

In an email, the spokesperson said: “Starbucks does not agree that the claims in the filing have merit, and the complaint’s issuance does not constitute a finding by the NLRB. It is the beginning of a litigation process that permits both sides to be heard and to present evidence.

“We believe the allegations contained in the filing by the NLRB regional director are false, and we look forward to presenting our evidence when the allegations are adjudicated. A partner’s right to organize does not exempt them from adhering to our policies. We will continue to enforce those policies equally for all partners.”