The First Starbucks Location That Voted to Unionize Is Being Shut Down

Workers allege the action is retaliatory, but the chain says closures are "a regular part of our operations."

A closed Starbucks location
Photo: Gabby Jones / Bloomberg via Getty Images

With thousands of locations nationwide, a single Starbucks closing typically isn't national news. But at a time when the coffee chain is dealing with a major unionization push from employees — and being accused of potentially illegal anti-union behavior in the process — the announcement that Starbucks is shuttering a unionized store in Ithaca, New York, is grabbing a lot of attention.

Starbucks Workers United, the national group behind Starbucks employees' unionization efforts, said they would once again be filing an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board after the chain announced plans to close the location on College Avenue which voted to unionize along with two other Starbucks locations in the city back in April. The union explains that this location was the first in the U.S. to vote to unionize and thus labeled the decision to close the store — with just one week's notice, no less — a "clear attempt to scare workers across the country by retaliating against its own employees."

Employees at the store went on strike in April due to an overflowing grease trap, according to the union, and Starbucks cited the grease trap as the reason for the closure. "We went on strike over our broken grease trap (which has been an issue for years) and now they're claiming that our store needs to close permanently because of it," employee Nadia Vitek stated. "Seems like blatant and illegal retaliation."

"When asked if we would still have jobs come June 10th, we were simply told that 'Starbucks would bargain in good faith," added Benjamin South, who has worked at the store for over three years. "This is clearly retaliation for our small grasps at dignity as workers, but our strike showed them what power we have."

For its part, Starbucks has also accused Workers United of illegal behavior. And when asked about the Ithaca closure, the chain described the choice as business as usual. "We open and close stores as a regular part of our operations," a Starbucks spokesperson told Food & Wine in an emailed statement. "Our local, regional, and national leaders have been working with humility, deep care, and urgency to create the kind of store environment that partners and customers expect of Starbucks." They further added that, "Our goal is to ensure that every partner is supported in their individual situation, and we have immediate opportunities available in the market."

Meanwhile, one of the key figures at the heart of Starbucks' anti-union push has been former CEO Howard Schultz who returned to the company as interim CEO after Kevin Johnson announced his retirement earlier this year. Interestingly, just today, Starbucks released a statement affirming that the chain was on track to identify a full-time successor to replace him as CEO "in the coming months" and that Schultz would remain as interim CEO until early next year to ensure "a seamless transition and continuity of leadership through the 2022 holiday season."

Additionally, in a story published today in the Wall Street Journal, Schultz explained what Starbucks was looking for: "For the future of the company, we need a domain of experience and expertise in a number of disciplines that we don't have now," he was quoted as saying. "It requires a different type of leader."

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