TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—Tompkins County legislators came close to issuing a formal statement of support for local Starbucks workers and a rebuke against Starbucks’ national corporation for their actions surrounding the closure of the Collegetown location, but ultimately decided to stay out of the matter for the time being.

The legislature also allocated federal relief funds to jumpstart the Community Recovery Grant Fund program and received a final update on the status of the redistricting process locally, among a plethora of other topics. You can watch the meeting here and check the agenda here.

Starbucks Union Stand-off

The story is well-known by now: just months after workers at local Starbucks locations made Ithaca the first municipality with an entirely unionized Starbucks workforce, the company’s most popular local location, in Collegetown, was rather suddenly shuttered. Publicly, the company has blamed a malfunctioning grease trap, ice bin issues and worker initiative, but workers have largely stated that this is a retaliation for their vocal unionizing and frustration at working conditions, including filing charges with the National Labor Relations Board against all three locations in Ithaca.

Negotiations between the union and Starbucks have continued as workers called for a citywide boycott, though it appears that their efforts have pivoted from reopening the Collegetown location via the bargaining table to ensuring that Collegetown workers have open spots available at other Starbucks locations in Ithaca.

Local lawmakers have individually issued statements of support, but full municipalities haven’t considered calling out Starbucks in any kind of more forceful way yet, until Tompkins County Legislator Veronica Pillar introduced a resolution to call on Starbucks to reopen the Collegetown location, which was added to the end of the Tuesday’s agenda, and outright accused the company of union-busting tactics.

“This is extremely impactful on people’s lives,” Pillar said. “Starbucks is how they make a wage, pay rent, etc. […] Starbucks likes to say its focused on customer experience, but its the frontline workers that customers interact with that provide that experience.” 

Pillar said it was a failure by Starbucks that the workers feel so undervalued, and referred to the April wildcat strike that took place at Collegetown’s Starbucks due to the grease trap overflow that, apparently, had still not been fixed by the time the store shut down.

But Pillar was met immediately with sympathy but trepidation from colleagues.

“Having a political speech is different than this government passing a resolution,” legislator Amanda Champion said. Her sentiments boiled down to that she felt it was a bit of an overstep for the legislature to get involved with the goings-on of a specific business, though she acknowledged that it made her feel hypocritical because of resolutions or government actions she has supported in the past. 

Fellow members followed with similar sentiments. Legislator Dan Klein said he felt there was too much he didn’t directly know about the Starbucks situation in Collegetown that he felt the legislature would be overreaching by getting involved. 

In a statement of support for the resolution, legislator Anne Koreman suggested taking some time to tweak the resolution instead of rejecting it. Koreman said she felt that its significance to the community, particularly the Starbucks workers themselves, would outweigh the discomfort that legislators were feeling with the bill. 

“I don’t remember this legislature weighing in on those,” legislator Mike Sigler said of other union issues that have played out locally, including those that at least had the appearance of union-busting as the current Starbucks situation does. “As individuals we did, but I don’t think it’s wise for a government to get involved.”

Sigler drew a parallel between the legislature’s potential support for Starbucks with its reaction to the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association’s accusations of union-busting early last year against former Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick. He said that the legislature shouldn’t pick-and-choose in that case, and essentially said he was uncomfortable, from a government standpoint, with the level of involvement in the situation that the resolution would create. 

Legislators Rich John, Mike Lane and Travis Brooks all basically said the same. There was, to be sure, universal sympathy for the situation the Collegetown workers are facing, but it didn’t engender enough motivation to act as a body.

Legislator Deborah Dawson tried to offer some amendments and tweaks that would have softened the language of the resolution a bit, adding that the closure “appears” to fit into “a pattern of union-busting,” etc., hopefully to make it more palatable for her colleagues. 

In an effort to expedite the process, Chair Shawna Black suggested that if Dawson’s amendment failed, Pillar should just withdraw the resolution and “go back to the drawing board,” since that would effectively seal the resolution’s fate. The amendment did indeed fail. 

After a few more comments, Pillar gave one last shot to coaxing her colleagues into support. She pointed out that cities like Seattle and Boston had passed resolutions “expressing solidarity” with Starbucks union workers, so Tompkins County shouldn’t feel like its setting some new precedent with the resolution. 

“We’re not even doing something material, but we need to say words that need to be said,” Pillar said. “Obviously the National Labor Relations Board is there to do that too, but just because a body is there to do something doesn’t mean that it’s actually happening. Management and executives are really good at getting around that and avoiding it.”

The resolution failed 10-4.

Redistricting Tompkins County

The Municipal Home Rule Law outlines statutory guidelines around redistricting. Chapter 516 of the law introduced a stricter protocol for defining equal populations across legislative districts, which involves a reduced maximum deviation from ten percent to five percent. As noted during the legislative session, this is a significant change from the status quo for the past 30 years. 

Other guidelines touch on the protection of minority voting rights, continuous territory, compactness of districts, fairness in the political arena, and election administration efficiency. 

In regards to local elections, the county charter dictates that the size of a county legislature can range from 11 to 19 members, with the recommended number of 16—two more than the current number of 14—despite concerns of potential ties in votes. 

Legislators also emphasized the issue of low voter turnout in District 4, whose population consists almost entirely of university students, some of whom only reside in Ithaca temporarily. 

Community Recovery Grant Program

Deborah Dawson, chair of the Budget, Capital, and Personnel Committee, brought up a resolution to redirect funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) away from capital projects and towards the Community Recovery Grant Fund program, which was previously set to be funded by the Tompkins County fund balance. This change stemmed from the U.S. Treasury Department’s final ruling on fund usage compliance—which turned out to be less severe than the ruling’s proposal—as well as a realization that fund balances are not eligible sources of aid for programs structured like the Community Recovery Grant Fund. The resolution to authorize ARPA for use towards the Community Recovery program garnered unanimous support from all 14 Tompkins County legislators.

Other News and Notes

  • Legislators approved Tompkins Cortland Community College’s budget for 2022-2023, and praised the hiring of new President Dr. Amy Kremenek.
  • Pilot issues impacting Ithaca Tompkins International Airport were discussed, but no action was proposed or taken

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com