Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

Cornell students and faculty intensified their efforts to demand Cornell end its relationship Starbucks following the July 6 NLRB decision that found that several of Starbucks' labor violations directly impacted Cornell students.

August 15, 2023

Scrutiny of Cornell-Starbucks Relationship Intensifies Following NLRB Decision

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Cornell has remained silent regarding its participation in Starbucks’ “We Proudly Serve Starbucks” program — in which organizations serve Starbucks products in food and beverage establishments, as Cornell does in its dining halls and many of its cafés — three months after a meeting with students that occupied Day Hall in protest.

This silence comes despite the mounting pressure from the Cornell community to end its relationship with Starbucks as soon as possible, including the May 12 Day Hall student occupation, two Student Assembly resolutions and an emerging petition signed by nearly 100 faculty members. 

Leading up to and following the unionization of Ithaca’s three Starbucks locations at College Avenue, East Seneca Street and South Meadow Street — a process that made Ithaca the first city in the United States to be fully unionized across all Starbucks locations — Starbucks implemented several anti-union practices and policies, according to worker testimonials and the findings of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

This culminated in the 2022 closure of the College Avenue location and the short-staffing of the remaining locations before they too were shut down in May, while the union filed complaints against Starbucks to the NLRB.

In the subsequent July 6 decision in the NLRB case, Deputy Chief Administrative Law Judge Arthur Amchan requested Starbucks reopen its Collegetown location and mentioned Cornell University by name 18 times in a ruling that Starbucks is in the process of appealing.

Starbucks has staunchly denied that any of its conduct is union-busting or motivated by organizing activities by its workers, in Ithaca and elsewhere.

“Starbucks coffee company, unequivocally — and let me set the tone for this very early on — has not broken the law,” Howard Schultz said to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) while testifying before a senate committee during his third stint as Starbucks CEO in March.

Several of the violations that the presiding judge found — such as the constructive dismissal of Cornell student workers unwilling to work over Cornell’s breaks — directly affected Cornell students and took advantage of the school’s outsized presence in Ithaca, according to the judge. Student advocates and former Starbucks employees have said the University has still left them searching for further answers.

“We haven’t received a straight answer”: Policy without protocol

Since the company’s labor record has come under scrutiny, student organizers, former Starbucks employees and members of the larger Cornell community have been calling on Cornell to break its contract with Starbucks, which is currently scheduled to end in 2025.

However, the student organizers of the Day Hall occupation expressed discontent with their meetings with President Martha Pollack that resulted from the occupation. They said she appeared inflexible and refused to truly consider ending Cornell’s relationship with Starbucks early despite general sentiment against Starbucks on Cornell’s campus. 

“We asked about enforcement of the code of conduct — if there were internal policies at Cornell that allowed them to terminate this contract,” said Nick Wilson ’26, one of the Day Hall protest organizers. “We didn’t receive an answer to that question. And we also asked why the review process for this contract, even if it can’t be terminated before expiry, why that contract can’t be immediately subject to review. We were told by President Pollack that it’s impossible. […] We haven’t received a straight answer as to why that’s the case.”

Cornell University Policy 4.3: Sales Activities on Campus describes standards for on-campus product sales.

“For the convenience of its community, Cornell University allows limited sales to be conducted on its campus in ways that are consistent with the University’s mission, take account of off-campus businesses and comply with applicable laws and regulations,” the policy states.

Danielle Donovan ’25, another student organizer of the Day Hall occupation, said the official NLRB findings of Starbucks’ labor law violations should indicate that Starbucks violated Cornell’s code of conduct.

Donovan also recounted that throughout the first meeting between Day Hall organizers and administration — which occurred on May 12 — it felt like the administration agreed to the meeting to convince the Day Hall occupants to leave the building, rather than to learn about the student advocates’ aims.

“[Pollack] just really obviously didn’t want to be there and kept telling us that we went about this the wrong way and [that] we should have gone through the [S.A.],” Donovan said.

However, Donovan and Wilson recounted that student organizers and Starbucks Workers United members had already approached and worked with the S.A. to pass two resolutions that addressed the Cornell-Starbucks relationship. In interviews with The Sun, S.A. President Patrick Kuehl and S.A. Executive Vice President Claire Ting corroborated this account, describing how organizers and the S.A .worked together to cement the angle utilized to exert pressure on the administration.

The S.A. passed two resolutions May 11, urging the University to commit to no longer serving Starbucks-branded products in dining locations by the beginning of the Fall 2023 semester. The resolutions also urged Cornell to publicly release the full terms of all ongoing contracts and agreements between the University and Starbucks by May 31.

Pollack acknowledged both resolutions on May 17, stating that Cornell’s contract with Starbucks ends in 2025 and the University would start to review the contract and consider future vendors in Fall 2024. Throughout that review, Pollack said, Cornell Dining management would actively work with the S.A. Dining Committee. Pollack noted that due to a confidentiality clause in the University’s contract with Starbucks, it was not possible to disclose contract terms.

A representative of the University declined to comment on the NLRB case and provide details regarding the future of Cornell’s contract with Starbucks.

Cornell notably has a precedent of ending contracts with companies deemed as violating the labor standards of the University.

Cornell severed their business relationships with Russell — which sold approximately $500,000 worth of merchandise annually in the Cornell Store — in 2008. The University stated that the corporation’s anti-union practices in Honduras violated its code of conduct. After nearly 100 colleges and universities cut off relationships with Russell, the corporation agreed to rehire 1,200 employees in Honduras that lost their jobs when Russell shut down their factory after the workers unionized.

Pollack ended Cornell’s apparel licensing agreement with Nike over the corporation’s refusal to comply with a labor code of conduct vetted by Cornell and peer institutions in 2017. However, Cornell’s separate sports sponsorship contract with Nike continued, encompassing five athletic teams.

The decision to cut ties with Russell and Nike occurred after long activism efforts by Cornell Students Against Sweatshops — now re-organized as The People’s Organizing Collective — and Cornell Organization for Labor Action.

“It was almost like trauma bonding”: The federal labor violations committed against Cornell students

Cornell students who worked at Starbucks relayed stories of a hostile work environment and off-putting practices while the workers were moving towards unionization in late 2021 and early 2022, as well as afterward.

According to NLRB documentation, a compounding issue at the College Avenue location was a failed above-ground grease trap in the kitchen, which workers had asked to be fixed for several years. The NLRB case states that Amber Olson — who now serves as the store manager at another Starbucks location in Horseheads, New York — observed the grease trap and its unpalatable odor as a College Avenue Starbucks employee in 2013.

Denise Nelson — then the senior vice president of Starbucks’ United States Retail Operations — visited the location in November 2021 and was shocked by the state of the grease trap, according to NLRB documents.

The NLRB documentation states that on or around April 15, 2022 — only about a week after all three Ithaca locations successfully unionized — the College Avenue store’s manager, Victor Rodostny, refused to close the store when the grease trap in the kitchen overflowed. In response, workers at the College Avenue location went on strike until the leak was fixed.

Other workers, from Collegetown and the other two locations in Ithaca, described worsening working conditions as well.

On June 3, 2022, College Avenue Starbucks employees were told that the store would permanently close on June 10, 2022 despite no decision regarding permanently closing the store being officially made.

Starbucks refused to honor the union’s requests to bargain the store closure but agreed to bargain the effects of the closure. In these bargaining sessions, employees were offered the chance to transfer — with their current wage rates and benefits — to the other Ithaca Starbucks locations, with the right of first refusal.

Jack Dobosh ’25, a Cornell undergraduate student who worked at the College Avenue location in Collegetown prior to its closure, worked at a Starbucks location in his hometown of Southborough, Massachusetts before attending Cornell. He said the qualifications as a trainer that he had earned while working there did not transfer over to Ithaca despite a lack of trainers at the Collegetown location.

“At my home location, I had a lot of flexibility around my hours,” Dobosh said. “My boss would have my back and look out for me.”

Another Cornell undergraduate student — who requested anonymity as she still works for a Starbucks location in her hometown in another state — corroborated much of what Dobosh said. She said that although she bonded with her co-workers, it was despite Starbucks’ corporate policies.

“It was almost like trauma bonding,” she said. “We’d always run out of stuff or be understaffed, but the way we’d work together and just rally in times — that really brought us together.”

Dobosh said once unionization began gaining momentum, Starbucks began looking for any reason to force out pro-unionization employees. He himself was denied time off for spring break in April 2022 despite following proper company policy by requesting leave three weeks in advance. He said he attempted to contact every barista in Ithaca, but was unable to find someone to cover all his shifts nor was he able to reach Amanda Laflen, who was the manager of the College Avenue location at the time. 

That earned him a no-call, no-show and a final written warning despite no history of discipline, which directly influenced his decision to vote in favor of unionization — the only thing he felt would protect him from termination.

Dobosh was not the only student denied time off during the break. 

Several other Cornell students received the same treatment from Laflen, including Alayna Earl ’23, Yancee Mendoza ’23, Conor Mervyn ’24, Evan Sunshine ’23 and Maya Rader ’23, according to the NLRB ruling.

There are no records of employees not receiving time off if they asked for it at least three weeks in advance from before Laflen arrived in Ithaca, according to the NLRB case.

Laflen stated in an email she sent to Beate Kuhnle-Hambster, then the acting district manager, on March 4, 2022, that she expected to lose a significant number of employees, largely due to declining requests for time off.

“I am fairly confident that not granting everyone who asked this time off will result in those partners resigning,” Laflen wrote in an email publicly available from court documents. “All included, we are highly likely to lose 10-14 partners in the next four weeks, if not sooner.”

The NLRB documentation also stated that in a conversation with employee Kolya Vitek ’22, District Manager Charlie Kabureck — who replaced Kuhnle-Hambster — admitted that before Laflen assumed the managerial role, all partners that requested leave for spring break were automatically granted the time off. In that conversation, Kabureck also conveyed an intention to lower the proportion of Ithaca Starbucks employees that were students.

The NLRB case found that these denials of employee leave were an example of anti-union employee discrimination since these practices were not utilized before the Ithaca locations’ organizing campaigns.

“I find that [Starbucks’] denial of these requests was motivated by a desire to rid it of employees who supported the Union as evidenced by Laflen’s email, the change from its past practices and the fact that [Starbucks] did not need these employees to staff the College Avenue store during the 2022 school break since it was closed to the public for three days during the break,” the presiding judge wrote in his decision.

The presiding judge found that Starbucks’ actions towards employees, many of whom were Cornell students, violated the National Labor Relations Act, a federal law that was passed by Congress in 1935 to protect workplace democracy and union activity.

According to NLRB documentation, there was a period of “bloodletting” from Nov. 15, 2022 — approximately the first day of negotiations between the union and Starbucks — to Jan. 3, 2023 — one of the days of Cornell’s winter break, when the Ithaca stores would not be as busy. Throughout this period, over 15 employees across Ithaca locations were issued disciplines and terminations.

The student worker described scenes of disbelief among her co-workers who were on shift when the Starbucks representatives announced the other two locations would be closing by May 26. 

She said the Starbucks representatives refused to give any specific details regarding information about the closures, and instead told the workers to speak to their union representatives.

The student worker said Cornell should look into supporting other, preferably local businesses instead.

“If [the University has] students who are working for this company who are experiencing these injustices, they have a responsibility, and they also have money, to be able to not support such an unsupportive company,” she said. “What would it say to the public if, instead of selling Starbucks coffee, they directed their coffee places to sell local coffee?”

A comment request sent to Starbucks Corporate Communications has not responded to a comment request sent by The Ithaca Voice, though they have previously denied any corporate wrongdoing. 

Starbucks previously wrote in an email to The Sun that they intended to appeal the decision,  and that the union’s case is “unfounded.”

“Where claims have been filed against Starbucks that we believe are unfounded, we continue to defend the company and the rights of our partners as matters are fully adjudicated by the NLRB and federal courts,” the email said. “We strongly disagree with the administrative law judge’s recommendations issued and intend to file exceptions contesting the findings and recommendations made.”

IN PHOTOS: Click to see how the Starbucks unionization saga unfolded

“Starbucks is a shameless scofflaw”: Faculty comes out against Cornell-Starbucks relationship

The Cornell chapter of the American Association of University Professors — which is open to all Cornell faculty including professors, researchers, librarians, graduate students and academic professionals — unanimously voted to support student protests against Starbucks’ presence on Cornell’s campus on May 17, citing the company’s targeting of Starbucks union members.

“Due to Starbucks’ retaliatory anti-union actions in Ithaca, including the store closings, many employees — including 20 Cornell students — have lost their jobs over the past year,” as written in the statement. “We support the Cornell student advocates who are protesting Starbucks’ presence on the Cornell campus due to Starbucks’ unlawful and unethical actions.”

The Cornell AAUP also noted Cornell’s history of responding to student demands to cut off relationships with companies involved in anti-union efforts, including Russell and Nike, calling on Cornell to do so again.

“We call on Cornell and Cornell Dining to immediately terminate all relations with Starbucks, most notably withdrawing from the Proudly Serving Starbucks Program and removing Starbucks products from Cornell Dining establishments,” according to the statement.

Members of the AAUP including Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, industrial and labor relations, who serves as Cornell AAUP’s president and the academic director of The Worker Institute, created “Cornell Faculty in Solidarity with Starbucks Workers,” a signed letter for faculty members to publicly express their solidarity for Ithaca workers in the Starbucks union, support for Cornell student advocates and desire for a new coffee vendor.

Ninety-two faculty members have signed the petition as of Friday, Aug. 11.

For Lieberwitz, it was inspiring to see students — several of whom have been in her own classes — taking collective action to push for Cornell’s actions to be in line with high levels of ethics. 

“They’re incredibly impressive students,” Lieberwitz said. “They’re committed to improving the world in a way that will really redress the inequalities that exist on multiple levels, including the ways in which unionization can help to address those problems.”

Lieberwitz called students at Cornell leading social justice initiatives “a proud tradition,” from the Willard Straight Hall takeover in 1969, to the movement to divest from apartheid South Africa in 1985, to the Day Hall takeover by Latino activists in 1993 to the Cornell Graduate Students United protests in March.

Lieberwitz said she views Cornell’s relationship with Starbucks as having both a symbolic value and an economic value. Symbolically, Starbucks gains legitimacy and popularity from being on a university campus, and economically they benefit from additional sales. 

“So in all these ways, Starbucks benefits, and Cornell should not be part of that relationship where Starbucks is engaging in unethical and unlawful behavior,” Lieberwitz said. “Cornell should use its position, not only to refuse to have relationships with certain corporations, but to shape that relationship, to say we’re conditioning our relationship on that corporation acting consistently with the ethics and laws in support of people’s rights, and oftentimes, those are workers rights.”

Lieberwitz described that the Starbucks unionization movement has brought about a nationwide conscience toward the importance of unionization, including through the movement’s educational presence at Cornell. In 2022, as a part of its annual Union Days event, the Industrial and Labor Relations school held “The Moment for a Movement: Starbucks and the Slow Drip of Starting a Union,” which brought Buffalo, Ithaca and Tennessee Starbucks employees, the former chairman of the NLRB and an attorney for Workers United for Starbucks together to discuss the reasons for unionization and plans for the future.

Prof. Michael Gold, industrial and labor relations, explained that he signed off on the letter to signal his condemnation of the corporation. Gold noted that this belief was strengthened by the NLRB’s decision.

“Starbucks is a shameless scofflaw,” Gold wrote in a statement to The Sun. “I, as an individual and not a representative of the ILR School or Cornell University, disapprove of and regret Starbucks’ behavior. I signed the petition because I believed that Starbucks had violated the rights of its workers.”

Prof. Russell Rickford, history, was another signee of the letter. In a statement to The Sun, he stated that he hopes the letter emboldens the movement to unionize Starbucks locations and sever Cornell’s contract with Starbucks.

Rickford, who is also a vocal member of the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America chapter, views Starbucks as a massive corporation that believes it can act without consequence, with Starbucks unionization representing an essential front in the growing nationwide labor movement.

“Many Starbucks employees are among the precarious ranks of today’s vulnerable, insecure workforce,” Rickford wrote. “The fight for a Starbucks union is a crucial, national struggle that all people of conscience should support.”

Jonathan Mong and Julia Senzon are reporters from the Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at The Ithaca Voice. This piece was originally published in The Ithaca Voice.