In response to the announcement that all Ithaca-based Starbucks locations will be permanently closed by May 26, student organizers and Starbucks employees occupied Day Hall on Thursday, May 11 to urge Cornell to end its relationship with Starbucks.
On both North and Central Campuses, most Cornell dining halls and cafés serve Starbucks brand beverages.
Rally organizers primarily demand that the University publicize its contract with Starbucks and sever its relationship with the corporation, switching providers for all on-campus dining establishments that serve Starbucks products.
According to Nick Wilson ’26, a former Starbucks barista in his hometown of Wilmette, Illinois who now is a student activist with the People’s Organizing Collective, organizers require a campus-wide switch to an “ethical” brand that is approved by the student activists occupying Day Hall and Starbucks Workers United before the fall semester.
Organizers discussed expanding the number of locations offering Gimme! Coffee — which is currently sold at Bill and Melinda Gates Hall and in three other Ithaca locations. According to Wilson, Gimme! Coffee is ideal due to being a local, unionized worker-run co-op. On Tuesday, organizers offered free Gimme! Coffee in front of Starbucks stores and campus dining establishments selling Starbucks products while discussing their cause and asking for optional donations, which ultimately raised over $700 in support of the strike.
To Wilson, specifically targeting Cornell’s relationship with Starbucks — rather than Starbucks as a whole — is a way to leverage the organizers’ authority as students of the University.
“You can’t negotiate with Starbucks — that’s a boardroom full of multinational executives who won’t listen to us,” Wilson said. “Where power is, is we have this affiliation with the University [as students], and we have the ability to democratically rise up and say, ‘This is what we demand.’”
Wilson noted that organizers believe Starbucks is making a profit of millions of dollars through its relationship with Cornell, but this contract is not currently public. In turn, disrupting the agreement between Cornell and Starbucks is a way for organizers to demonstrate to the corporation that there are economic consequences to what they consider to be a national union-busting campaign.
Prior to the occupation of Day Hall, organizers urged Cornell students to send over 900 emails to the University demanding that they sever all University ties to Cornell, although Ryan Lombardi, vice president of student and campus life, denied receiving an email until 30 minutes prior to his and Dean of Students Marla Love’s initial arrival in the lobby of Day Hall shortly before 5 p.m., where students had already been gathered for hours.
“The President wants to engage with you in good faith and talk about this,” Lombardi said. “[We] can’t make a commitment today to honor the demands that you’ve brought forward — we just haven’t had time to look at all the ramifications and implications of that. We know that some emails were sent this week. I got my first 30 minutes ago.”
Lombardi then called into question the veracity of some of the emails, saying they were generic and did not appear to come from Cornellians, but Wilson refuted the accusation, saying students had endorsed the sending of each message.
Following this exchange, Lombardi and Wilson began discussing the policy demands made by the demonstrators. Lombardi said President Pollack was out of town and accused the demonstrators of negotiating in bad faith with the administration.
“I’m willing to make that commitment to have this dialogue and try to figure something out — see what we can come up with,” Lombardi said. “But I cannot make this commitment today that you’re asking us to make. And I think it’s unreasonable to ask us to make that on the spot. That’s not giving us a fair chance to really look at all the implications.”
Wilson questioned the unreasonability of the demands, saying Starbucks’ departure of Ithaca caused an emergency due to what the demonstrators deemed as violations of federal labor law.
“What do you think is unreasonable about the demands? Because for us, it seems pretty clear. You have this contract — or there’s someone that you could get in contact with given the emergency circumstances of Starbucks’ illegal union busting who could obtain that contract — and you could give it to us,” Wilson said. “All we’re asking you to do is commit to not Starbucks next fall, and commit to working with us… as to what that next vendor will be.”
After an extensive back-and-forth, Lombardi and Love returned to their offices.
Love then came back to the lobby at 5:40 p.m. to inform the demonstrators that the building would officially close at 6 p.m., and offered to allow them back into the building at 8 a.m. on Friday when the building reopens. The demonstrators countered with an agreement to leave the building if Love and Lombardi agreed to a definitive meeting between the demonstrators and President Pollack, as well as all “relevant” decision-makers.
According to both the University and the demonstrators, relevant decision-makers include the University cabinet as well as attorneys representing the University.
Organizers affirmed that they intended to stay in the building until the requested demands were reached or until they received more details affirming legitimate reasons for the University’s inability to meet their demands at the time — such as an explanation of the legal provision that states Cornell cannot be released from its contract with Starbucks or information on why essential individuals cannot be reached.
Love stated that several of these individuals — including President Pollack — were traveling from Qatar where they attended a Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medicine graduation ceremony and were therefore unavailable. Lombardi stated that he had not made significant progress on the specific points he discussed with organizers up until that point, but that he was confident that he would be able to talk with President Pollack on Friday morning.
The organizers then established a plan in which they stated that they would leave the building if a meeting with President Pollack, chair members and University attorneys was established for the following morning.
Ultimately, after two separate discussions with demonstrators, Love did not agree to the meeting, citing an inability to convene everyone on the University’s side.
Love declined to comment when approached by The Sun.
Following Love’s announcement, the demonstrators held a group discussion resulting in a consensus to stay in Day Hall until CUPD began removing students from the building. They also began creating a protocol for when CUPD finally cleared the building. Some — such as international students or those with previous charges — would leave prior to CUPD’s arrival, unwilling or unable to risk University disciplinary retaliation, while others would stay in the building until the last possible moment, then camp out in a few tents procured by some demonstrators in front of the entrance.
CUPD officers had entered the building by 7:15 p.m., but did not clear the building at that time. At 8:10 p.m., six officers entered the lobby — where the demonstrators had been gathering — to confront the demonstrators and repeatedly announced that the building was officially closed. However, all but one officer left the room 10 minutes afterward without having removed the demonstrators.
Morale never wavered among the demonstrators throughout the sit-in. Following the initial confrontation with CUPD, the demonstrators began singing union songs such as “Solidarity Forever” and “Which Side Are You On?” and chanting slogans such as “Union strong, Starbucks out!” and “If we don’t get it, shut it down!”
At 8:45 p.m., the remaining CUPD officials re-entered the lobby. Citing trespassing as a violation of the Student Code of Conduct, officer Eric Steickel issued an ultimatum to the demonstrators — leave by 9 p.m. or face referral to the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards.
The demonstrators chose to leave the building at exactly 8:59 p.m., singing “Solidarity Forever” as they departed. Multiple demonstrators cited their choice to leave as having been decided by the possibility that any disciplinary action could leave their organizing committee unable to come to the negotiating table with University administration.
Following a brief meeting outside Day Hall, about 12 of the remaining demonstrators set up their tents across the street in front of Uris Hall, where they intend to spend every night until they reach an agreement with the University.
On April 8, 2022, all three Ithaca Starbucks locations voted to unionize, making Ithaca the first city to successfully unionize all of their Starbucks locations. Subsequently, the Collegetown Starbucks was closed on June 10, 2022, with Starbucks’ corporate offices claiming that the decision was made due to inadequate safety and sanitation conditions.
The two remaining locations being closed in May are on E. Seneca Street and S. Meadow Street. In a statement made by a Starbucks official to the Ithaca Voice, the corporation also denied that these closures are in response to unionization efforts.
Kolya Vitek, Talía Silva-Vallejo and Ian Willing — coworkers at the E. Seneca Street Starbucks locations — told The Sun on Thursday they believe the closing of all Ithaca locations is a devastating and unethical example of union busting.
“[Considering] Ithaca is the first city to be fully unionized… you can really see that [Starbucks] prefers shutting all the stores [and] losing money, rather than giving basic needs to their workers… [and accepting] workers that support unions and that are unionized,” Silva-Vallejo said.
Willing also noted his shock at the closing of additional Ithaca Starbucks locations, in light of legal complaints filed by Starbucks Workers United and supported by a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board. According to the director, the College Avenue location’s closure was intended to dissuade workers from unionizing, making the corporation’s actions illegal.
In response to the closure of Ithaca Starbucks locations, the Student Assembly passed two resolutions Thursday morning, according to Suraj Parikh ’26, minority at-large representative for the S.A. and a sponsor of both resolutions. One called for Cornell to end its partnership with Starbucks, while the other requested that the University make the terms of its contract with Starbucks public.
This follows a similar resolution unanimously passed by the University of California Student Association this past weekend that urged the UC system to end its ties to Starbucks, in solidarity with Starbucks Workers United.
Correction, May 12, 3 p.m.: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Peet’s Coffee is owned by Starbucks.