Starbucks Ordered To Reopen Illegally Closed Ithaca Store In Symbolic Union Win

The latest development in the ongoing Starbucks unionization epic is a win for employees. Per a press release sent to Tasting Table, on July 6, National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Judge Arthur J. Amchan ruled that the closure of an Ithaca, New York store was an act of unlawful retaliation, and ordered that Starbucks reopen the College Avenue location immediately. As part of the ruling, all former workers must be rehired, including six pro-union employees that were illegally terminated prior to the forced closing. Judge Amchan ordered that they also be reimbursed with full back-pay.

Starbucks was first accused of closing the location to punish the union in June of 2022, when a formal NLRB complaint was filed. Employees at the store had voted to unionize in April of that year — a particularly momentous win because the other two Starbucks locations in Ithaca also successfully won their union elections, making Ithaca the first U.S. city with fully-unionized Starbucks stores. The company has since closed the other two stores in Ithaca as well. In addition to punishing the union, Starbucks' critics allege the coffee chain wanted to avoid negative press surrounding the fair labor protests by Ithaca employees and decided closing the stores altogether would be the quickest way to shut it down.

Starbucks responded to a Tasting Table request for comment stating, the chain "strongly disagree[s] with the recommendations issued by the administrative law judge as the findings are not supported by the facts presented during the proceeding." The company plans to "file exceptions contesting the findings and recommendations made."

Chipping away little by little

Starbucks Workers United took to Twitter to share the victory, enthusiastically stating, "BIG NEWS!!! A federal judge found that Starbucks ILLEGALLY closed the College Ave. store in Ithaca, NY and ordered that Starbucks IMMEDIATELY reopen it. Another win for workers!" Supporters flooded the comments section to voice their excitement over the win. But, some Twitter users expressed concern about what further steps will (or won't) be taken after the store reopens to ensure that the poor working conditions which led the employees to unionize in the first place don't immediately resume. As IndieLeft.Media noted, "I think what Starbucks did is terrible — not sure how making them reopen a store, rehire the same workers, and treat them badly fixes anything. Will they be held to any standard of employee satisfaction?"

On June 28, outspoken workers' rights advocate Senator Bernie Sanders poured a little fuel on the flame, tweeting, "We have got to make it easier for workers to exercise their right to join a union free from fear, intimidation, or coercion by the corporate bosses." Last fall, the Starbucks corporation faced over 325 charges of unfair labor practices, one of which was the repeated forced closing of unionized stores in what organizers called a "scorched earth" campaign against the union, as reported by NPR. (Other tactics included unlawful termination of union employees and offering benefits exclusively to non-union workers.) As of October 2022, the NLRB had already issued 35 formal complaints against Starbucks for its illegal union-busting activities.

Union workers remain vigilant and draw community solidarity

While this win is certainly encouraging to Starbucks Workers United, the future of the union movement at large remains cloudy. Some organizers argue that this series of union-related closures is being disguised as a "safety and security" issue, per CNN Business. When Starbucks closed its Broadway and Denny location last November, the first Seattle store to unionize, Starbucks Workers United released the statement, "This is the most clear-cut case of retaliation this company has shown closing a union store yet. Starbucks and [CEO] Howard Schultz are playing petty games with workers' lives." It's no secret that there's no love lost between the former CEO and the union. The fact that Judge Amchan has even had to make such a ruling months after Schultz appeared at a Senate hearing for other store closures just like these isn't particularly optimistic for the union, either. But, for now, a win is a win, and Ithaca baristas on College Avenue have much to celebrate.

As for the two remaining still-closed stores in Ithaca, students at Cornell University are taking matters into their own hands with a campaign to remove Starbucks from its campus to show their support for the union. Time will tell what the future holds for the New York state baristas. As of June 29, there are 332 Starbucks stores that have successfully unionized, spanning 40 states.