After employees at a Starbucks shop in Ithaca, New York, called a strike last April, a communications specialist at the PR firm Edelman sent a “real-time alert” to Starbucks executives.
“I point to an article in The Ithacan about the strike at Starbucks at Cornell University,” the specialist wrote. “The partners went on strike over repeated grease trap spills that caused an unsafe environment and lack of action by management.”
The story led to renewed discussion among Starbucks management about what to do with the branch. A regional director recommended closure because “the space does not meet the needs of our partners or the brand”, but she also noted that they were looking at the possibility of renovation.
Starbucks closed the shop permanently two months later, after which workers and federal labor authorities accused the company of retaliation. Workers had recently voted 19-1 to join Workers United, making the shop one of 300 company-owned Starbucks shops nationwide that have been organized since late 2021.
The emails that Starbucks recently disclosed in a proceeding before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) shed light on the thinking of Starbucks officials in the run-up to the closure. The shop was in a prime location with great revenue potential, but suffered from serious maintenance problems, most notably the overflowing grease trap.
In June, Denise Nelsen, senior vice president of U.S. operations, emailed Rossann Williams, then head of Starbucks’ North American operations, about the debate over whether to close the shop permanently or renovate it.
“We need to resolve these condition issues because we also keep getting media reports about the condition of the shop,” Nelsen wrote.
Kolya Vitek, a barista who worked at the College Avenue branch, argued that the unwanted attention of the strike prompted Starbucks to close the branch permanently.
“It was retaliation for our strike because we were forced to work in unsafe conditions,” said Vitek, who now works at another Starbucks branch in Ithaca. “They didn’t care [before]. Now that we’re making national headlines, all of a sudden they care.”
“We have to solve these condition issues because we also keep getting media on the store condition there.”- Starbucks official Denise Nelsen in an email to coworkers
Starbucks insists it closed the café for legitimate business reasons and says problems with the shop date back to last year. The company also denies that negative press played a role in the decision.
“Media attention had no impact on our decision to close the shop,” Andrew Trull, a spokesman for the company, told HuffPost.
It would be illegal for a company to close a single plant because of union activity. The NLRB’s General Counsel found merit in the union’s claims in Ithaca and filed a comprehensive complaint against the company last November.
According to the union, Starbucks informed workers on 3 June 2022 that the College Avenue shop would close permanently. However, Starbucks emails indicate that the company was still undecided about what to do with the café at that time, in part because the location was so solid.
A memo about the shop’s situation said it had the “strongest real estate trade position in the area” and that “any relocation would be inferior”. Members of the operations team had recommended permanent closure, while the “real estate recommendation” for the shop was to “go dark, reinvest and reopen.”
Williams played a leading role in the company’s efforts to contain the union movement before leaving Starbucks last June. The Seattle-based executive visited and worked at shops in the Buffalo area, where the campaign began as workers considered forming unions – a presence some workers found intimidating. Emails show that Williams received detailed information about the union’s progress.
“It was retaliation for the strike we went on because we were being forced to work in unsafe conditions.” – Starbucks worker Kolya Vitek
In a June 2022 email, a regional shop steward sent Williams a “Buffalo Executive Summary” that described Ithaca as a “hot spot” for union activity that “continues to be visited by Buffalo union organisers”.
She also gave Williams an overview of the upcoming union elections. She said the company intended to challenge the results of a recent branch ballot because four workers had apparently not received ballots. The union had won that vote 7-4.
“It is understood that these four associates did not receive ballots,” it wrote. (The challenge ultimately failed).
The College Avenue shop is one of 25 that the union claims Starbucks closed either permanently or temporarily to disrupt the union campaign. Union members argue that Starbucks has two goals with the closures: to break up and disperse a core of union supporters – perhaps leading to layoffs of baristas who could not or would not work at another location – and to make workers everywhere think twice about organizing.
Starbucks claims that it has not closed any shops in retaliation for union activity. However, an administrative law judge has already ruled that Starbucks unlawfully closed a unionised kiosk in a shopping centre, finding the company’s reasons for the closure to be “clearly pretextual”. The NLRB’s General Counsel has not yet commented on whether the union’s claims are valid with respect to nearly two dozen other closures.
After Starbucks announced the closure of the Ithaca shop, workers began what they called “effectiveness bargaining” with the company to clarify their rights during the closure. The workers were offered jobs at other branches. Vitek said they pushed for a severance package for workers who would not accept other jobs, but the company flatly refused.
Evan Sunshine, an Ithaca barista who spearheaded the negotiations, said he did not expect Starbucks to close the shop permanently. He believes the grease trap is a serious problem and that the company could close the shop for a while to fix it, but that workers would eventually return to the same shop.
Sunshine said they had raised money via crowdfunding to cover the wages of the employees affected by the closure.
“We didn’t meet our targets every week,” he said.
Ultimately, Sunshine said, the closure of the College Avenue branch had a dramatic impact on the workforce and the organising campaign in the city. When the election was held in April 2022, there were 27 workers at the shop. Starbucks stated that fourteen workers accepted jobs at other shops after the closure, while the rest declined. The vast majority have since left the company.
“Two of the 27 still work at Starbucks,” Sunshine said, referring to himself and Vitek.