Update (2:57 p.m.): This story has been updated with comments from a Starbucks spokesperson that were sent after publication.

ITHACA, N.Y.—The National Labor Relations Board delivered a surprising blow to Starbucks Tuesday night, declaring that the company should reopen the Collegetown location it closed earlier this year while also setting a hearing date to settle the myriad labor cases filed against Starbucks by Ithaca employees. The NLRB is seeking an order from a judge to force the reopening of the Collegetown location, among several other requests. 

The company’s decision to close the most popular of its three Ithaca locations, announced in June 2022, was widely criticized as a union-busting tactic and led the newly-formed union to file charges with the NLRB against Starbucks. Municipalities like the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County also jumped into the fray with demands that the store be reopened. Other charges have been filed with the NLRB in the months since regarding the two remaining Ithaca stores, both of which also unionized in April, along with the Collegetown store, though the complaints have now been consolidated per the NLRB’s latest filing. While Collegetown was one of the first, Starbucks has been accused of closing several locations around the country in the wake of unionization efforts at those stores. 

The NLRB’s findings are a rather damning indictment of Starbucks, saying the company has been “failing and refusing to bargain collectively and in good faith.” Beyond requesting the restoration of the Collegetown location to its pre-closure operations, it further requests that five employees terminated by Starbucks either be given their jobs back or reimbursed, with damages, along with letters of apology to those workers (including Benjamin South and Virgil Taylor, among others named in the suit). Additionally, all Ithaca employees should be compensated for any “temporary closures” that have taken place, calling those closures “illegal conduct.”

Starbucks’ answer to the charges and requests is due by November 15, and a hearing on the case is tentatively scheduled for February 6, 2023.

“We routinely review the partner and customer experience in all our stores, and when operations necessitate, we will open or close a store in the regular course of business without regard to union activity,” a Starbucks spokesperson said in response to the NLRB’s findings. “There will continue to be no tolerance for any unlawful anti-union behavior, if ever found to be true. No Starbucks partner has been disciplined or fired for engaging in lawful union or labor activity.”

It is anticipated that Starbucks will appeal or fight the NLRB’s requests.

Despite that claim, there’s a litany of labor violations listed in the NLRB’s findings. They include threatening employees over supporting the unionization efforts, including loss of ability to transfer and loss of benefits, as well as incentives to not support the unionization, such as free parking or store renovations. Most, if not all, of these allegations stem from actions at the Collegetown location in the lead-up to the unionization vote, which took place on April 8, 2022. There are also more subtle allegations, such as Starbucks deploying more support and hiring managers to unionized stores locally, with the overall perception among employees that “their union activities were under surveillance.” 

However, there are also allegations regarding revocation of approved leave requests, hour reductions both for full stores and for individual employees and more. Generally, the NLRB found evidence of retaliation, intentionally making working conditions worse in the hopes of employees quitting, unequal enforcement of work rules against unionizers and failure to bargain with the union. That conduct amounts to “interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees,” and “discriminating in regard to the hire or tenure or terms of conditions of employment,” according to the NLRB.

Prominent organizer Benjamin South’s termination, on Aug. 3, 2022, is also mentioned throughout the charges as an example of union-busting. Other employees faced either hour cuts, leave revocations or denial of promotion/training for promotion despite qualifications, according to the NLRB. 

The struggles have indeed continued at area Starbucks, even after the Collegetown location closed and the two other stores, in downtown Ithaca and on Meadow Street, had fluctuating hours. Workers at the Starbucks on the Commons say stricter and selective policy enforcement has made their jobs more stressful. Adding to that is a recent maelstrom around barista Evan Sunshine, another well-known union advocate from the Commons store, who has become a target of conservative media for a recently posted Twitter video complaining about working conditions at Starbucks. 

Workers say that pressure from management has continued, including disciplinary write-ups issued to about a third of the staff from a new manager at the Commons store. During the first few days under the new manager, Peter Lourenco de Bessa, barista Nadia Bitek tweeted about some issues the workers were having, including that de Bessa wouldn’t believe a worker when they said they were sick.

“It feels like another way that they’re trying to break us down, people are feeling really suffocated. Our jobs are not fun right now under this manager, and there have been times when it has felt fun. His days off feel way easier to work through than when he’s in the store,” Bitek said.

De Bessa did not respond to attempts to contact him for comment. 

“He said that [partners] can clock in a few minutes early, but they cannot be even one minute late,” Sunshine said. “He is also much more outwardly aggressive toward shift supervisors.” Sunshine originally worked at the Collegetown location until it closed.

Another barista who wished to remain anonymous said that almost everyone at the store has gotten a write-up and that there has been much more conflict, including friction over the community board in the store, where messages in support of the union would often be posted.

“This is a way that we would express solidarity and the community would express support,” they said, adding that anything referencing the union is taken down and replaced with Starbucks posters.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...

Matt Butler

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