Jason Wu/Sun Staff Photographer

Starbucks stores around Ithaca are unionizing to demand safer work environment and improved wage.

February 1, 2022

‘We Deserve to be Treated as Humans’: Union Wave Brews Across Ithaca’s Starbucks

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Nadia Vitek was making drinks at their Starbucks shift during the fall 2021 semester when their supervisor informed them of a potential active shooter. After evacuating the store and sheltering in place due to a credible bomb threat, their manager, who had been working remotely, made them reopen on the same day. 

“It was jarring to me that that decision wasn’t made by anyone who was actually there,” Vitek said. “I was horrified that we were made to work after that.”

Scout Coker ’22, a Cornellian who works at Starbucks, told The Sun that the November incident compounded the need for unionization efforts, which had already begun a few weeks prior. According to Coker, when he raised the issue to his coworkers at a meeting, every employee agreed that the situation had made them feel unsafe.

“It made a lot of people realize that we shared a collective discontent,” Coker said.

On Jan. 25, through its official Twitter page, Starbucks Workers United publicly announced its new campaign in Ithaca. This campaign represents all three Starbucks locations in Ithaca: College Avenue, the Commons and the newly opened Meadow St. drive-through location. 

According to the organizers, the Buffalo Starbucks’ December victory in union elections inspired the move for Ithaca’s.

One of the imminent demands of the campaign is improvement in COVID-19 related policies.

“We had a huge outbreak based on student exposure at my store,” said Evan Sunshine ’24. “It baffles me that there’s not enough protocol for that. Something needs to change.”

The organizers cited several occasions when customer satisfaction was given precedence over worker safety, in the face of COVID-19 protocols. 

Coker said, “I had multiple bosses explicitly tell me that I couldn’t tell someone to put their mask on, regardless of how nicely I said it.” 

Masking was a New York State law following the Omicron outbreak. Hope Liepe, an organizing committee member, stated that corporate manager instructions, instructing workers to discreetly ask customers to wear a mask at the register have made it impossible to enforce mask regulations.

Vitek was not told to stop, but to be more personable about it.

“In the end, I stopped enforcing masks. Two days after, I tested positive. Three others did too. We closed the store for 10 days [because of staff shortage],” Vitek said.

Liepe recounted an incident where she came into accidental contact with one of the COVID-positive partners – the corporate name for Starbucks workers. Her managers presented her the choice to come into work or self-isolate, meaning she would lose nearly a week of pay. 

According to the organizers, Starbucks offered only five days of isolation pay despite the 14-day recompensation that Tompkins County guidelines required, discouraging workers from completing their isolation and recovery period.

“It’s just crazy to me that customers don’t know that there are baristas with COVID-19 making their drinks,” Vitek stated. 

Acknowledging the difficulty of responding to a global pandemic, Coker added, “The thing that concerns me is that their policies have been so contradictory; it seems that every time that they update their policy, it takes more and more power away from the baristas.” 

Other demands include fair wages and security for worker’s hours. 

According to Coker, Starbucks promotes cutting hours regardless of the amount of traffic by providing managers a set number of hours a week that they can allot to the store. He believes that increasing that number would provide more legroom for the security of worker hours. 

“And Starbucks can afford it – the CEO makes millions,” Coker said. “I shouldn’t have to wrestle my way to making more hours a week.”

Marwa Bakri ’24 echoed her fellows’ sentiments regarding the mistreatment of workers by customers as well as management. 

“It’s no secret that the majority of Cornell’s population has an affluent background,” she said. “There is a difference in the way that I’m being spoken to as a service worker versus when my status as a Cornell student is known.”

Bakri also noted a lack of support from the Starbucks corporate regarding recent shifts in managers. Without consistent managers, other members of staff are forced to make schedules, which Bakri says has been frustrating. 

According to the organizers, corporate employees have been visiting the locations. 

“Starbucks is notorious for union-busting,” Coker said. 

Vitek noted that the company’s “delay tactic” has been a pending hearing where Starbucks will try to argue regional voting. 

“That makes it hard to vote because it calls in stores that haven’t been unionizing,” they said. “This is already a settled case because voting is store by store – but we have to wait out the one month hearing.” 

Sunshine noted that community engagement efforts are also part of the campaign. 

“We are giving out yard signs at the Autumn Leaves bookstore; there is a donation page on the Starbucks Workers United website where you can buy merchandise [which goes towards] funds in the event of a strike.” 

People can sign a petition asking for fair principles in unionizing efforts. Other customers have been coming into stores and directly stating their opinions to management. Furthermore, Vitek encouraged people with mobile orders to change their name to ‘union yes’ to make any corporate workers present feel watched. 

Liepe expressed that problems are not a prerequisite for unions, which exist to foster a democratic workplace and a voice in the running. 

“We aren’t anti-Starbucks,” she said. “We love Starbucks, we work for Starbucks, but we are also for our say in Starbucks.”