After the workers at a Starbucks store in Ithaca, New York, went on strike last April, a communications specialist from the public-relations firm Edelman emailed a “real-time alert” to corporate Starbucks officials.
“Flagging an article from The Ithacan that discusses the Cornell University Starbucks strike,” the specialist wrote. “Partners went on strike due to repeated grease trap spills that caused an unsafe environment and lack of action from management.”
The story renewed discussion among Starbucks management about what to do with the store. A regional director recommended closure because “the space is not meeting our partners or brand needs,” but she also noted they were exploring the possibility of a renovation.
Starbucks ended up shuttering the store permanently two months later, leading workers and federal labor enforcers to accuse the company of retaliation. The workers had recently voted 19-1 in favor of joining Workers United, making it one of 300 corporate-owned Starbucks stores nationwide that have been organized since late 2021.
The emails, which Starbucks disclosed in a recent trial at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), shed light on the thinking among Starbucks brass leading up to the closure. The store was in a prime location with great sales potential but suffered serious maintenance issues, chief among them the overflowing grease trap.
In June, Denise Nelsen, senior vice president of U.S. operations, emailed Rossann Williams, then the head of Starbucks’ business in North America, about the debate over whether to close the store permanently or renovate it.
“We have to solve these condition issues because we also keep getting media on the store condition there,” Nelsen wrote.
Kolya Vitek, a barista who worked at the College Avenue location, argued that the walkout’s unwanted attention prompted Starbucks to shutter the store for good.
“It was retaliation for the strike we went on because we were being forced to work in unsafe conditions,” said Vitek, who now works in a different Starbucks store in Ithaca. “They didn’t care [before]. They cared all of a sudden now when we’re making national news.”
“We have to solve these condition issues because we also keep getting media on the store condition there.”
Starbucks insists it closed the cafe for legitimate business reasons, saying its concerns with the store stretched back to the previous year. The company also denied that negative press played any role in the call.
“Media attention had no bearing on our decision to close the store,” Andrew Trull, a company spokesperson, told HuffPost.
It would be illegal for a company to shut down an individual worksite because of union activity there. The NLRB’s general counsel found merit in the union’s claims in Ithaca and brought a sweeping complaint against the company last November.
According to the union, Starbucks informed workers on June 3, 2022, that the College Avenue store would be closing permanently. But the Starbucks emails suggest the company was still undecided at the time about what it should do with the cafe, partly because the location was so solid.
A memo on the store’s situation said it had the “strongest real estate trade position in this area” and “any relocation would be inferior.” Operations team members had recommended a permanent closure, while the “real estate recommendation” for the store was to “go dark, reinvest and reopen.”
Several days after workers were told the store was shutting down for good, company officials were still discussing whether they should rehab and reopen it.
“It’s gone dark this is our last ditch effort to get the [landlord] to solve these issues,” Nelsen wrote to Williams.
Noting the media attention on the store, Nelsen added, “If we can’t get him to respond to this message and cooperate, we will need to discuss permanent closure.”
Michael Dolce, a lawyer for the union, said the emails show Starbucks was not straight with the store’s workers. He noted that on the same day that Nelsen and Williams were discussing the store’s possibilities, Starbucks’ lawyer sent workers a list of reasons why they were shutting it down permanently, among them the troublesome grease trap.
“At the bargaining table, they told the union they were permanently closing the store,” Dolce said. “The plan was not to permanently close the store; it was to survey options.”
Dolce argued that the negative publicity brought by the strike prompted Starbucks to hurry up and close the store even as it was still evaluating what to do.
Another Starbucks email says the original closure plan was to keep the cafe open through June, but the operations team moved the closure date up nearly three weeks.
Starbucks says it still considered the closure “permanent” because it could not have restored the cafe in a matter of weeks. Instead, it would have taken one to two years at a cost of $700,000.
Pressed on why the company told workers the store would be closed permanently when a renovation was still on the table, Nelsen said during the labor board trial that the “depth of issues” at the store made a timeline for reopening uncertain.
“Our timeline for a new — like for a brand-new store opening is a year,” she said. “So we’re literally talking about something taking that long. Like yes, this would be treated as a permanent closure.”
Williams played a leading role in the company’s effort to contain the union drive before leaving Starbucks last June. Based in Seattle, the executive visited and worked in stores in the Buffalo area, where the campaign began, when workers considered forming unions ― a presence some workers found intimidating. Emails suggest Williams received detailed updates on the union’s progress.
“It was retaliation for the strike we went on because we were being forced to work in unsafe conditions.”
In a June 2022 email, a regional director of operations emailed Williams a “Buffalo executive summary” that called Ithaca a “hot spot” for union activity that “continues to have presence from Buffalo union organizers.”
She also gave Williams a rundown of upcoming union elections. She said the company planned to challenge the results of a recent store vote because four workers apparently didn’t receive ballots. The union had won that vote 7-4.
“It is believed these four partners are no votes,” she wrote. (The challenge ultimately failed.)
The College Avenue store is one of 25 that the union claims Starbucks closed either permanently or temporarily to disrupt the union campaign. Union members argue Starbucks has two aims with the closures: to break up and disperse a core of union support ― perhaps prompting resignations from baristas who couldn’t or wouldn’t work at a different location ― and to make workers everywhere think twice about trying to organize.
Starbucks maintains that it hasn’t closed any stores in retaliation for union activity. But an administrative law judge has already ruled that Starbucks illegally closed a mall kiosk that had unionized, deeming the company’s reasons for the closure “clearly pretextual.” The NLRB’s general counsel hasn’t yet announced whether the union’s allegations regarding nearly two dozen other closures have merit.
After Starbucks announced the closure of the Ithaca store, workers began what’s known as “effects bargaining” with the company to hash out their rights during the closure. Workers were offered positions at other stores. Vitek said they pushed for a severance package for workers who wouldn’t be taking other positions, but the company was staunchly opposed.
Evan Sunshine, an Ithaca barista who took the lead on that bargaining, said he did not expect Starbucks to close the store permanently. He believed the grease trap was a serious problem and that the company might close the store for a while to fix it, but that ultimately workers would have the same store to return to.
Sunshine said they crowdfunded money to help cover workers’ wages affected by the shutdown.
“We didn’t meet our goals every week,” he said.
In the end, Sunshine said, the shuttering of the College Avenue store had a dramatic effect on the workforce and the organizing campaign in town. When the election was held in April 2022, there were 27 workers at the store. Starbucks said fourteen workers accepted positions at other stores after the closure, while the rest declined. The vast majority have since moved on from the company.
“Two of the 27 still work at Starbucks,” said Sunshine, referring to himself and Vitek.