Julia Nagel/Sun Photography Editor

Inspired by Cornell, college and university students nationwide are initiating movements to sever ties with Starbucks due to the company's union-busting actions.

November 22, 2023

Cornell-Originated “Starbucks Off Our Campus” Movement Goes National

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Students at colleges and universities across the country have started their own movements to discontinue affiliations with Starbucks in response to the company’s union-busting actions, inspired by an announcement from Cornell’s Student Assembly that the University will not be renewing its contract with Starbucks following its June 2025 expiration.

According to Nick Wilson ’26, a member of the negotiating committee that spoke with President Pollack and administration officials at Cornell following the May 2023 Day Hall takeover, there were 37 Red Cup Day rallies and seven full campaigns to cut contracts, including at multiple University of California campuses, Georgetown University, the University of Washington — which is located in Seattle, Starbucks’ city of origin — and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“The fact that Cornell students have the bravery to organize against such a massive conglomerate was very inspirational for many college students,” said Fiona Naughton, a sophomore at Georgetown University and an organizer of its Starbucks Off Our Campus movement. “And I think it showed a lot of us that it could be done that Starbucks could be challenged in this way.”

Naughton said Cornell’s success gave other student movements across the country — like Georgetown’s — hope that their movements could succeed as well. 

“Seeing the success of Cornell’s activists gave us a lot of hope for our movement,” Naughton said. “It really motivated us to begin this process, because we had some prospects for victory — there was [now] a precedent that we could follow, which I think is important.”

Organizers across the country found out about the victory of Cornell’s movement when activists disseminated The Sun’s coverage of the S.A.’s announcement in labor circles, according to Naughton, who said it was a rare example of students winning a labor victory unrelated to graduate student unionization.

“There hasn’t been clear action in a few years that undergraduate students have led, and I think that the Cornell students were very inspirational, because it was a reason why people are so connected to the story,” Naughton said. “A lot of us were just encouraged by the motivation and endurance of young people.”

Unlike Cornell, Georgetown’s relationship with Starbucks is through Aramark, its dining contractor until at least 2025. According to The Hoya, Georgetown’s student newspaper, Aramark licenses Starbucks’ branding and products for use at universities and Aramark employees — who are not Starbucks employees and are unionized under the UNITE HERE union — staff the Starbucks location in the Leavey Center, one of Georgetown’s student centers. Georgetown also has invested over $4.5 million in Starbucks through its endowment, according to its most recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing

Cornell, which does not have a dining contractor, has a direct contract with Starbucks that will end after the 2024-25 school year.

Several universities’ Starbucks Off Our Campus movements allied with the nationwide 2023 Red Cup Rebellion on Thursday, Nov. 16, a one-day strike on Red Cup Day, one of Starbucks’ busiest days of the year. This year, over 5,000 workers at over 200 locations across the United States walked off the job to protest poor working conditions including understaffing and low pay, according to the Associated Press. Actions varied across campuses, but many branches demonstrated at their campus locations or at unionized locations in and around their city.

Naughton said Georgetown’s Starbucks Off Our Campus movement protested outside the Leavey Center on Nov. 16, which she said was important due to the symbolism it represented even though it was “nerve-wracking” due to being an on-campus location.

“We thought it was really important for our community members to be aware of this and that’s why we chose specifically the location on campus,” Naughton said. “Georgetown students do go to Starbucks off campus, but there’s a much more direct pipeline application on campus and that’s why we wanted to do it outside of that location, even though it was a little bit more of a risky location.”

The University of California, San Diego’s Starbucks Off Our Campus movement also participated in the Red Cup Rebellion, said Francis Galang, a first-year Ph.D candidate at UCSD and an organizer for its Starbucks Off Our Campus movement. UCSD sells Starbucks products at its “marts,” convenience stores located in each of UCSD’s eight sub-campuses. There is also a location in the Price Center, one of UCSD’s student unions.

However, unlike Georgetown, UCSD’s branch demonstrated in solidarity with two unionized locations in the area — one located in the San Diego neighborhood of Hillcrest and the other in Encinitas, California, roughly 25 miles outside San Diego city limits — with about 15 organizers distributing flyers outside the Hillcrest location along with its workers.

Starbucks said it respects its employees’ right to protest in an email to The Sun.

“We respect our partners’ right to engage in lawful protest activity,” Starbucks wrote in the email. “Our focus remains on all partners and our commitment to continue to work together, side-by-side, to make Starbucks a company that works for everyone.” 

However, Starbucks downplayed the importance of the Nov. 16 strikes, stating “fewer than 150” of its company-owned stores experienced demonstrations and accused Starbucks Workers United — the union with which many Starbucks locations, including all three of Ithaca’s former locations, have affiliated — of refusing to bargain.

“Despite escalating rhetoric and recurring rallies demanding a contract, Workers United hasn’t agreed to meet to progress contract bargaining in more than five months,” Starbucks wrote in the email. “As we join together to uplift the holiday season and reflect on the past year, we again call on Workers United to fulfill their obligations and engage in the work of negotiating first contracts on behalf of the partners they represent.”

At UCSD, activists have connected the Starbucks Off Our Campus movement with the UC system’s own graduate student union, which is a local chapter of United Auto Workers. Galang said organizers have made this connection in response to what he called the UC system’s failure to honor its contract with UAW and UCSD’s perceived union-busting actions.

“Recently there was a lot of chalk messaging that said, ‘Enforce our contract,’” Galang said. “What the UC has done is they’ve labeled this chalk action vandalism, and they’ve charged students and UAW members with felonies over that. We became involved with Starbucks workers united to open the conversation against union busting on campus.”

Like Naughton, Galang said he was inspired by Cornell’s Starbucks Off Our Campus movement’s success, hoping to leverage the experience of Cornell’s activists into undergraduate action at UCSD.

“The action that happened at Cornell is very, very inspiring for us. And it allows for there to be a description of what’s possible with undergraduate students,” Galang said. “I’m very, very excited to organize the undergraduate students to take action against union busting and to connect the wider struggles of UAW, Starbucks workers and other unions that are facing union busting using the stories that we have from Cornell’s action against Starbucks.”

Galang said he hopes to take elements of Cornell’s movement for use at UCSD.

“This is what was possible at Cornell — these are the steps that were taken,” Galang said. “And you can take these steps, see if they’re possible, if they match your master organizational contexts and what can be done for the purposes of Starbucks, your community and yourselves as developing organizers. Their story exists to open up the possibilities around the country.”

Both Naughton and Galang stated they have been in contact with Cornell’s Starbucks Off Our Campus organizers. Wilson said although Cornell’s lead organizers — himself, Danielle Donovan ’25, Evan Sunshine ’24 and Grant Moravec ’23 — are not taking the lead either nationally or for specific movements on other campuses, they have offered support and advice to organizers like Naughton and Galang.

“Folks from Cornell certainly don’t play a formal leadership role in the campus campaigns,” Wilson said. “But we’re there to advise and assist where other campuses can use our experience or support.”

Wilson said he and Moravec spoke at a Thursday, Nov. 9 planning call for Starbucks Off Our Campus ahead of Red Cup Day, where they shared the story of Cornell’s organizers so other groups could learn from their experience.

“We just shared our experiences — what works for us and what didn’t work — in hopes that other campuses can sort of learn from that,” Wilson said.

Efforts at Cornell to break ties with Starbucks began after the coffee chain shuttered all three of its locations in Ithaca — first the College Avenue location in June 2022 and the remaining two on E. Seneca Street and S. Meadow Street in May 2023 — after all three locations unionized with Starbucks Workers United, making Ithaca the first city in the United States to have all of its Starbucks locations unionized. 

Student activists then staged a takeover of Day Hall on May 11 and May 12, 2023 after Starbucks’ May 5, 2023 announcement that it would close its remaining two stores, demanding that Cornell end its participation in the “We Proudly Serve Starbucks” program, which licenses Starbucks products for use in Cornell’s cafés and dining halls.

The takeover ended after Starbucks Off Our Campus organizers met with Pollack and senior administration officials on May 12, in which both parties agreed to a follow-up meeting. Both Wilson and Donovan expressed their discontent with the meetings with Pollack in prior interviews with The Sun.

But the call to end Cornell’s partnership with Starbucks intensified after the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Starbucks specifically targeted Cornell students in their firing for unionizing, including denying students time off for Cornell’s academic breaks, culminating in the Wednesday, Aug. 16 press release from the S.A. — which oversees  announcing Cornell’s intention not to renew its contract with Starbucks.

Wilson emphasized the importance of Ithaca’s unionization struggle and the success of Cornell’s Starbucks Off Our Campus initiative in the broader fight of Starbucks unionization.

“Both Starbucks and union activists have identified Ithaca as a front line of this struggle,” Wilson said. “What happens here will be heard all across the country.”

Sunshine said this issue resonates greatly with him because he used to work for Starbucks and was initially hired at his Long Island Starbucks location before transferring to the College Avenue store, and then the E. Seneca Street store after the College Avenue location closed. 

“It isn’t fair that Starbucks will continue to profit off of the Cornell community when number one, its union-busting has personally affected Cornell students, and number two, the Ithaca community at large has been negatively personally affected by the Starbucks closures,” Sunshine said. “It’s called the ‘We Proudly Serve Starbucks’ program, but how proud are we that we’re continuing to fund a union-busting company by buying their coffees and buying the foods to serve to people?”

According to Sunshine, the Dining Committee is looking to choose an ethical vendor, whether a continuation of a current vendor or a new one altogether. Wilson highlighted Gimme! Coffee — a local worker-owned coffee company — as an alternative but admitted there are few corporations with the ability to handle demand at the scale of Cornell. However, Wilson and Sunshine are pushing for a vendor with an existing unionized workforce or a vendor willing to sign on to a code of conduct. This would guarantee that if their workers choose to unionize, the company will respect their right to organize and not engage in union busting.

“The goal is for it to be an ethical vendor — no union busting, no environmental problems, probably locally roasted,” Sunshine said. “We already have that on campus — the ethical, locally roasted coffee brands,” said Sunshine.

The activist group on campus currently has 27 members, many of whom have worked at Starbucks themselves or know someone close to them who has. 

“When they targeted student workers in particular, student activists felt like they needed to do something about it when members of their community, the Cornell community, were being affected by the union-busting,” Sunshine said. 

Joel Malina, vice president for University relations, explained how the University plans to select a new vendor to replace Starbucks products on campus in an email to The Sun. 

“As President Martha Pollack mentioned in her response to a related S.A. resolution, Cornell Dining — in consultation with the S.A. Dining Services Committee —- will initiate an inclusive process to select its next coffee product offerings and to ensure a smooth transition to a new vendor in 2025,” Malina wrote.

Donovan said members of Generation Z are particularly excited about the labor movement, a sentiment shared by Naughton.

“Students see Starbucks engaging in union busting right in their communities and their schools,” Donovan said. “These contracts between universities and Starbucks are a great target and accessible for students to fight back.”

Donovan has also met with students from other universities and told them what students at Cornell did to fight against Starbucks, many of which have been taken and implemented at their schools. Donavan also mentioned how, since all the corporate stores are closed in Ithaca and the Starbucks products at Cornell will be swapped out for a different vendor, Cornell’s student groups next look to combat the Starbucks in Ithaca’s Target and Barnes and Noble locations. 

Sunshine expressed his concern about why unionizing is so essential, saying it allowed workers to have a voice in their working conditions. 

“We need a union to ensure that workers have a voice so that they don’t have to feel like they have to earn their standing in the workplace,” Sunshine said. “[Instead,] they go in there already represented. They already have a voice to make change happen in their workplaces.”

But with Starbucks’ documented union busting actions, Wilson argued that the only way to win victories for labor was for young people to organize.

“For this moment in labor history to become a movement and to become something lasting, it’s crucial that Starbucks workers win a first contract,” Wilson said. “If the law isn’t going to be an effective point of leverage to secure that contract, then it has to be young people mobilizing, and things like these campus campaigns, standing up and demonstrating consequences for the failure to bargain through grassroots student power.”

Wilson also said the swell of student activism is “hitting Starbucks where it hurts” in a separate interview with The Sun, worsening its perception among a core demographic of its customers and alienating those it formerly attracted.

“The campus campaign is hitting [Starbucks] where it hurts in terms of worsening the company’s image in front of their main demographic of customers, which is young people on college campuses and doling out a financial penalty for union busting — which, so far, the law hasn’t exactly delivered,” Wilson said.