Ithaca Voice interns Syd Pierre and Caitlin Holtzman contributed reporting and photography to this story.

ITHACA, N.Y.—Workers at the soon-to-close Starbucks in Collegetown showed their power in numbers Wednesday afternoon, gathering outside of the coffee shop just days after it was announced the store would be permanently shut down by Starbucks merely two months after the store unionized, along with the other two stores in Ithaca.

The decision, with just one week’s notice given, has generated plenty of anger locally as elected officials and supporters of the unionized workers have spoken up frequently on social media since news of the closing first broke over the weekend, levying allegations of union-busting and retaliation at Starbucks. That anger was evident Wednesday, as several speakers addressed the crowd of workers, supporters and politicians who showed up to the event. The most significant announcement, though: that the unionized workers are now calling for a boycott of all Starbucks locations in Ithaca until the corporation agrees to keep the Collegetown location open.

“We can’t let Starbucks decide to close a union store two months after we won a vote just because all of the workers here won’t let managers talk to us however way they want to, or put us throug hell,” said Benjamin South, a Collegetown Starbucks worker and one of the union’s local leaders. “We have the power of the community. We have the power of the union. And they have to listen to us. […] This is all new to me, organizing and solidarity, unfortunately. But it’s never going away.”

South said the group is now bargaining with Starbucks in an attempt to keep the Collegetown location open despite the announcement from the company. He said the union hopes the boycott will push Starbucks towards keeping the store open, or at least guaranteeing the option to transfer to other locations for displaced Collegetown workers.

Gary Bonadonna, of Workers United, followed shortly afterwards, proclaiming that Starbucks’ corporate leaders were only resorting to the “bullying” tactics of shutting down the Collegetown location because they were “scared of the workers.”

“It’s happened for too long, corporations outlast and outspend us, or get away with immoral behavior like this with no consequences,” Bonadonna said. “The general public has to say, ‘We, as a society, find it unacceptable for a corporation to retaliate against workers organizing a union.'”

A worker from the Ithaca Health Alliance, which is also unionized through Workers United, addresses the crowd. (Photo by Syd Pierre)

Local Starbucks organizers had instructed those who visited the Collegetown location on Wednesday afternoon to participate in a “sip-in” by ordering cups of water from the location under the name “Union Strong.” In terms of political support, the workers were joined by Common Council members Jorge DeFendini, Robert Cantelmo, Ducson Nguyen, Patrick Mehler, Tompkins County Legislator Veronica Pillar, Common Council candidate Tiffany Chen Kumar, third-party Ithaca mayor candidate Katie Sims and New York State Senate candidate Lea Webb, many of whom called for donations to the Ithaca SBWU Strike Fund to support workers.

“This is an act of desperation,” said DeFendini during a fiery speech to much applause. “Starbucks is willing to break the law to stop you all, don’t let this demoralize you. They wouldn’t be going this far if you weren’t scaring them, if you weren’t making a transformative change at your own jobs. […] Ithaca is a union city, and we will protect every single one of our neighbors who belongs to one from their greedy bosses.”

Collegetown worker Bek MacLean ended the press conference, blasting Starbucks’ stated reasoning for closing the store (according to a letter viewed by The Ithaca Voice, that includes an old unfixed grease trap, a lack of ice bins, the size of the store and worker attendance) and urging the company to respect its union members and keep the store open.

Virgil Taylor, a barista at the Starbucks on East Seneca Street and member of Starbucks Workers United, attended the event in solidarity with the employees at the Collegetown Starbucks. Taylor said that since unionizing, he has experienced a cut in hours after asking to work 20–25 hours per week.

“I immediately got cut down to 14-16 hours a week … and now, due to the store hours changing I’m now getting anywhere between 4.5-14 hours a week,” Taylor said.

The East Seneca Street location had its hours changed to 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Collegetown and South Meadow Street locations also close at 2 p.m. Taylor said other partners have not been scheduled properly and the stores are understaffed. He said partners at the Collegetown store were told they can apply to work at the other two Ithaca locations.

Credit: Casey Martin / Ithaca Voice

“They were told they have the privilege to apply for other stores,” he said. “You’re closing their store […] it shouldn’t be a privilege it should be a right. And they should be guaranteed that they’re going to have jobs at those stores.”

Taylor said after seeing what happened at the Collegetown store, he is worried for his store and the South Meadow Street store.

“I’m hoping that everyone else will show up in solidarity if that happens to us too,” he said.

Anais Vanek-Raphaelidis, a senior at Ithaca High School, said she heard about the event on social media, and wanted to show support. She said that while she was not unionized at her prior job at the ReUse Center, she had felt empowered after doing bargaining work under a unionized framework there, so she wanted to show her support for the Starbucks Workers United. 

“I’m super proud of them for being the first unionized Starbucks city in the country, I think that’s amazing,” Vanek-Raphaelidis said. “Seeing people trying to undo that big step and progress is really frustrating to me, so I decided to come show solidarity today.” 

Vanek-Raphaelidis said she was happy with how the event went, including the variety of the crowd that showed up and the speakers that presented.  

“Even just standing here and chanting, I felt like we spread so much awareness of what was going on because everyone that drove by would see our signs,” Vanek-Raphaelidis said. 

Credit: Casey Martin / Ithaca Voice

Matt Butler

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