On a drizzly Labor Day morning, students, community leaders and Ithaca residents gathered on College Avenue for a rally hosted by Starbucks Workers United in support of the Ithaca Starbucks’ efforts to unionize.
In April 2022, Ithaca became the first city in the United States to unionize all Starbucks locations. The movement was sparked in August 2021 by actions in nearby Buffalo, New York where workers voted to unionize the first Starbucks in the country.
Ithaca workers were motivated to unionize in October 2021, but in June 2022, management closed the Collegetown location, claiming that it made little sense to continue operating with ongoing issues regarding the condition of the store. The workers claim this was in retaliation for their unionization.
Taking place in front of the now-closed Collegetown Starbucks, the crowd included members of SBWU, members of the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America and the Ithaca Tenants Union. The rally featured speeches from Ithaca Starbucks workers and community leaders and was followed by a parade from College Avenue to Ithaca Commons.
In his speech, Evan Sunshine ’24, a former Collegetown Starbucks employee and SBWU organizer, noted that the College Avenue workers took action in October 2021 when their manager was forced to quit due to poor working conditions involving upper management.
Sunshine and his coworkers learned of Stephanie Heslop, a worker at the Starbucks on Ithaca Commons, and became aware of her efforts to unionize the store. From there, the College Avenue and Ithaca Commons locations joined forces with the newest Meadow Street location to begin organizing.
“Originally, my intention to unionize was not anti-Starbucks [but] simply pro-worker and pro-union, but the way that Starbucks was treating me and my coworkers made me rethink my perspective of the company as they had shown their true colors,” Sunshine said during his speech.
Kayli Gillet, a former Starbucks employee of five years, who worked in the Houston, Dallas, New York City and Ithaca locations also spoke. Gilet was one of the first union organizers at the Ithaca Commons Starbucks and was fired on Aug. 25. In response to her firing along with two others in August, both the Ithaca Commons and College Avenue locations were on strike.
“On this historic Labor Day, solidarity is more important than ever,” Gilet said.
Gilet expressed her disappointment at the working conditions she experienced at Starbucks.
“The amount of labor that they’re asking us to provide just is not possible,” Gilet said. “They’re asking for more and more and they are staffing us less and less.”
Jorge Defendini ’22 who serves as an alderperson for the City of Ithaca’s Fourth District and the interim chair of the Ithaca DSA, noted the power of labor organizing both at the Ithaca Starbucks locations and at Cornell in his rally speech, referencing the United Auto Workers vote last Monday.
“Starbucks is firing workers and closing stores while Cornell tries to strip labor of its benefits,” Defendini said. “Times may seem bleak, but we have to remember that there’s a reason for all this — the business is afraid. Starbucks and Cornell alike are afraid of an organized labor movement.”
Defendini also emphasized his commitment to serving labor interests while in office.
“I’m proud to have introduced a resolution for the city to call on the NLRB to recognize and punish this gross union busting and I will continue to be at your service” Defendini said.
After the speeches, the crowd began a parade to the Starbucks in Ithaca Commons. Throughout the walk down Dryden Road and East Buffalo Street, the crowd chanted slogans like, “Get up, get down, Ithaca is a union town!” and “What do we want? Labor rights! When do we want it? Now!”
Sunshine said that it was encouraging to see so many people attend the rally despite the rain and hoped that the speeches were able to educate people about the unionizing effort.
“[The rally] was a call for action and we wanted to have this parade to gauge support for our fired workers like [Gillet] here but also support for the reopening of College Avenue,” Sunshine said.
Moving forward, he said that SBWU is looking to gauge community support and encouraged signing the “No Contract, No Coffee!” pledge, a national campaign that the union has been pushing, and a petition to reopen the College Avenue location with union recognition.
“We want to go back to work and we also know that the customers love the location,” Sunshine said. “It’s a hub for college students in the heart of Collegetown.”