Following efforts extending back to October, all three Ithaca Starbucks locations voted to unionize this past Friday, April 8. The outcomes of the votes for the College Avenue location, the Ithaca Commons location and the Meadow Street location were 19-1, 15-1 and 13-1, respectively.
“A lot of my coworkers are very happy, but we know this is only the first step in the next chapter of our journey,” said Evan Sunshine ’24, a barista and member of the union campaign’s organizing committee. “We’ll have to do bargaining with Starbucks for our first contract and only then we’ll be able to reap the benefits of the union.”
For Nadia Vitek, another organizing committee member, the relief of the vote was accompanied by frustration at the months-long, arduous process that Starbucks employees underwent to be permitted to vote for the formation of a union, which they consider a basic right.
“We feel such a huge sense of relief also coupled with sadness that something so simple and basic shouldn’t have to take this much work. [We faced] so much resistance for exercising our human rights,” Vitek said.
This resistance, according to the Starbucks workers, came through union-busting methods used by corporate leaders at Starbucks, including intimidation tactics, the denial of breaks and overhiring to limit hours.
In a conversation between Vitek and their manager, intended to serve as a discussion of potential promotions and other opportunities, Vitek was misgendered by their manager. Their manager proceeded to imply that a union would risk the benefits that employees receive, according to Vitek.
“[My manager] went on to brag about how many trans partners work at her store back home, and then after I asked her about trans healthcare benefits at Starbucks, she finished explaining those benefits by saying ‘I would hate for you to have to lose this with the union,’ basically dangling the benefits in front of me. Threatening my benefits,” Vitek said.
Student workers also faced difficulties taking time off to visit family and friends for this past Spring Break and were often presented with the choice between time off or risking their jobs.
According to Vitek, 6 out of 7 requests for time off were denied at the Starbucks on College Avenue by one manager.
Alayna Earl ’23 requested time off in advance for Spring Break but was denied it on the grounds that too many people requested it off before them.
“[The manager] pretty much called back and said, ‘I’m going to assume you’re voluntarily resigning if you don’t show up to your shift’,” Earl said.
Conor Mervyn ’24, who did not go home for Spring Break after being denied time off, shared his ongoing anxieties regarding requesting time off for summer break.
“I shouldn’t lose my job for having to leave for the summer,” Mervyn said, who is currently in the process of emailing professors looking for jobs as his fallback options.
“I saw one of my coworkers leave a conversation with the manager in tears knowing she’d have to pick between the job and family for Spring Break. A job shouldn’t be a prison, you should have time off if you want. All these people gave a reasonable amount of notice. It’s infuriating,” Vitek said.
Leading up to the vote, many note that the work environment had also been made noticeably less hospitable, with restrictions on water and the use of fans.
“A lot of the retaliation that my store has been experiencing has just been being treated like animals, it almost seems like they’re trying to make us quit,” said Rebekkah Maclean, another employee. “They know who supports the union; they are treating them all like shit. The way we’re getting talked to is degrading.”
According to Maclean, recently workers were prohibited from keeping beverages like water in non-personal cups, as well as from having a fan on the floor.
“It gets hot. My sister and I have problems with being woozy and passing out; if there’s no water or no fan, how are we supposed to work? It’s hell.” Maclean said.
According to Sunshine, the corporation is attempting to hire an unnecessarily large cohort of new employees in order to cut hours across the board and ask pro-union workers to quit.
“Packing in stores is illegal and is a form of retaliation; it is a form of punishment for unionizing,” Sunshine said.
Sunshine mentioned that GenZ for Change created an algorithm to flood the application portal with fake applications in an effort to resist this anti-union attempt.
Starbucks executive sentiment has recently been made public as well, with Interim CEO Howard Schultz reportedly lashing out at a barista at a California location.
“If you hate Starbucks so much, why don’t you go somewhere else?” said Schultz, according to The New York Post.
According to the campaign organizers, the next step for the union is negotiating contracts for each store. According to Vitek, the unionized Elmwood store in Buffalo welcomes partners from other unionized stores to take part in their negotiations and will possibly provide a template for the contracts of Ithaca’s stores.
According to Sunshine, a survey has been sent out to gauge the workers’ needs and demands which will frame the union proposals. The workers’ eminent demands include wage raises and increased hours for those who require them, as well as free healthcare coverage and increased safety measures. Vitek also mentioned their excitement at the proposal of a tip minimum.
“It would be great to be able to depend on making a certain amount of money and not just hope we get lucky,” Vitek said.
Earl would advocate for the provision of universal time off to partners when requested. “It’s not fair to prioritize one partners’ request over others’, you don’t know why someone is taking time off … I think it [should be] the manager’s job to find scheduling and coverage,” they said.
“I want to be as zero waste as possible as a corporation, I want to reduce Starbucks’ carbon footprint,” Maclean said. She also stated the need for easier access to mental health care beyond the 20 sessions per year offered by Starbucks’ current program, Lyra.
“At our store, we’d like to get a manager that’s not here to union bust, a manager who cares about us, and if they see that we’re struggling they’ll put on the apron and get on the floor,” Sunshine said. “What I wanna see is a manager that’s a source of support rather than a source of harm.”
Mervyn reminisced about a time when the divide between corporate and workers was not so prominent. He recounted experiences where Starbucks served as a source of support during an expressly challenging time in his life.
“There’s a lot of ‘we’re a family’ [at Starbucks]. Back in my home last summer, I’d spent a month sleeping in a truck because of some extraneous circumstances, and so basically I lived off of essentially camping out at Starbucks, using the WiFi to do some classes, and it’s essentially all I had,” Mervyn stated.
Observing the recent changes in worker treatment at his Starbucks location, Mervyn is worried that Starbucks, as a whole, is changing for the worse.
“I can’t speak for everyone, I like my job, I wanna keep it. A lot of people I know like their jobs and want to keep them,” Mervyn said. “It’s sad to see the disconnect grow larger and larger.”