"Definitely It's Retaliation": Starbucks Closes Unionized Store in Ithaca

A conversation with Nadia Vitek, a worker-organizer with Starbucks Workers United.

Maximillian Alvarez

Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

We’ve adjusted our episode publishing schedule to bring y’all an urgent episode about Starbucks’ escalating retaliation against pro-union workers and Starbucks Workers United. 

As Rina Torchinsky writes for NPR, Starbucks is closing a store in Ithaca, New York, in what Starbucks union organizers are calling an illegal move of retaliation after workers at the location voted to unionize. The coffee giant gave the employees at the College Ave. location near Cornell University a one-week notice of the closure, the union says, with the store slated to permanently close on June 10. The coffee giant has said the decision to close the store was unrelated to the unionization effort. 

The store was one of three Starbucks locations in Ithaca that voted to unionize on April 8. Workers at the College Ave. location previously went on a one-day strike in April for what the union says were unsafe working conditions — a waste emergency caused by the overflowing grease trap.’ Starbucks later cited the grease trap as reason for shuttering the location, according to the union.” 

In this mini-cast, we talk with Nadia Vitek, a partner at the College Ave. location and a worker-organizer with Starbucks Workers United, about the sudden decision to close the store and the mounting evidence that this is an illegal act of retaliation meant to send a chilling message to pro-union workers around the country. 

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Nadia Vitek: Hi, I’m Nadia Vitek. I am a barista at the College Ave location in Ithaca, New York, and I use they/​them pronouns. I’ve been with Starbucks for a little over nine months now.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right, well welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you. So I wanted to let you all know up top that we do have more full length episodes coming for you all on the Working People feed. We’ve been recording like crazy, especially because I’m going to be gone next week at the Labor Notes Conference, and so we’re trying to get ahead of the eight ball there. So we’ve got a lot of great full length episodes coming your way, but we actually pushed back the episode we had planned for this week so that we could talk about the bullshit that is going on at Starbucks, particularly at the College Avenue location in Ithaca.

And as you all heard, we are so, so grateful to have Nadia on right now, who has been working at that location, involved in the unionization effort. And we wanted to make sure that folks listening knew what was going on there and knew what they could do to show support for Nadia and their fellow partners. And I wanted to quickly sum up for folks who maybe haven’t heard the news, I wanted to just read this little summary from a CNN article by Ramishah Maruf that was published this week, which begins thusly, Starbucks workers at an Ithaca, New York, store claim their location is being shut down in retaliation for their union activism. The worker committee said it is filing an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that Starbucks is making a, clear attempt to scare workers across the country,’ a press release from the Starbucks Workers United said.

On Friday, Starbucks informed employees in its College Avenue location near Cornell University that the store will close in one week, according to the press release. In April, all three Starbucks locations in Ithaca voted to unionize, making Ithaca the company’s first fully unionized city within the United States, according to the union press release. On April 16, workers at the College Avenue store went on strike, claiming unsafe working conditions’ due to a waste emergency’ caused by an overflowing grease trap, the union said.”

Now, as that article states, Starbucks deciding to close this location is widely perceived by many, not just at Starbucks Workers United, but a present company very much included, this sure looks like a clear act of retaliation against Nadia and their coworkers for unionizing at that location. And Starbucks has said that they’re closing that location because of the grease trap that partners struck over. I’ve been to this location, I was in Ithaca for a while. It’s a very popular location. The idea that they would just shut it down really, really seems bonkers to me.

So Nadia, I know we have limited time with you, and again, I’m so appreciative of the time that we’re able to chat with you. And so I was wondering if we could start, before we get to this bullshit, let’s step back a second, and could we talk a little more about you and how you came to work at this location? And if you could tell listeners a bit more about your time working at Starbucks and your own involvement in the organizing campaign.

Nadia Vitek: Yeah, absolutely. I am a newer barista at Starbucks. I applied last summer. And around then I had heard whisperings of what was happening in Buffalo, but I didn’t really expect that it was going to have this much momentum as we’re seeing now. You know what I mean? And so I saw that and I was like, wow, that would be really cool if that became huge. But I just applied because I needed a job, so that wasn’t necessarily front and center. But I was like, that would be nice. And then as I started working there, I saw the movement in Buffalo picking up steam and… It was cute. Actually, the first conversation I had was with a coworker who, I was wearing a shirt from a leftist organization in Ithaca and he was like, I like your shirt solidarity.

And then I was like, I bet he would want to unionize. We had that conversation, and slowly we started finding other people at our store and the other stores in Ithaca who are really interested in that. And small conversations with a few people led to more and more. So yeah, at the end of January we filed for a union election, but we honestly probably could have done it earlier. We were just being super cautious because we were watching what happened in Buffalo and the huge union busting that happened instantly, all of the support managers sent. And as we’ve seen, Starbucks doesn’t have the resources at this point to have that same reaction at other stores that are filing for a union. So we had three new managers, which is still a lot, but less than what Buffalo experienced.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. This is like, again, well, I think what you all are doing at your store and stores around the country has been such an inspiration to workers and supporters all over the country and beyond is just like, yeah, it really feels like David taking on Goliath. And Goliath is shitting his pants right now because, from that first victory in Buffalo, the speed at which stores all over the country have filed for union elections and overwhelmingly the vote tally has been in favor of unionizing. Of course we don’t want to minimize the stores that have voted against unionization or the stores that have had their elections complicated by challenge ballots and all that stuff. It’s a dog fight. But right now, workers have really been putting the company on its heels by racking up all of these crucial union victories. And I think just, what was it, yesterday? We just got a whole bunch more. I lived in Ann Arbor.

Nadia Vitek: [inaudible]

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. So I lived in Ann Arbor for seven years, and I think all the stores in Ann Arbor just unanimously voted to unionize, which kicks ass.

Nadia Vitek: I saw that, that was awesome.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Shout out to Ann Arbor. New Orleans just had the first store vote to unionize in Louisiana. It’s a really incredible thing. And every time I talk to another Starbucks worker, it starts the way that you described it. You turn to your left, you turn to your right, you start talking to your coworkers, and you’d be amazed at how quickly things can develop from there. It just really speaks to the power of folks talking to each other about this stuff.

Nadia Vitek: Exactly.

Maximillian Alvarez: So I wanted to ask about that really quick. When you all started talking, what were some of the issues that you realized you were all thinking about but hadn’t been talking about at that point? What were the shared issues that you all wanted to organize around?

Nadia Vitek: Yeah, for sure. I can tell you for a lot of us, a lot of us are just pro-union no matter what, we want to work, unionize whatever workplace we’re in. But for sure wages is a huge one. And then also a really major one is just not feeling heard by the company at all. Starbucks has all of these progressive missions and values, but increasingly over the years, they’ve been abandoning that and it’s just been performative. Us baristas and shift supervisors, we really feel that, particularly during the pandemic. My store, College Ave, was the epicenter of the Omicron outbreak, at least as far as it was recorded in the United States. We were the first massive spike because we were right on Cornell campus, and Cornell was the epicenter for that, you might have seen that in the news.

And we had a mask mandate that was started again on a Monday, I remember, and our manager put a sign in the back of house saying that we’re not actually allowed to enforce masks. We’re only allowed to suggest or offer a customer a mask. And I got talked to about the way that I was trying to get customers to get their masks on, which definitely discouraged me from doing that. And then I got COVID two days later, and we actually had to close the store because too many of us got COVID. So that’s an example.

Another example in terms of safety, there was an active shooter threat right next door to us at Cornell, happening very close. And I was working that day, and my shift supervisor saw a customer come in, tears streaming down their face being like, I saw him, referring to a shooter. And then I look outside and there’s a hoard of Cornell students run-walking in one direction away from where the shooting threat was. And that’s exactly what we’ve been trained to look out for by Starbucks for an active shooter threat.

And so my shift supervisor… Okay, first of all, my manager wasn’t in store. So my shift supervisor had so much pressure put on her, and I think she did a great job, and our manager loves to scapegoat her about this. But she took us all to the back of house and had everyone in the lobby leave. We were safe in the back of house. We felt really safe. And she was texting our manager, who’s not currently our manager now, but our former manager. And she was like, yeah, we feel safe because we’re in the back of house. And after like an hour or so it turns out that it wasn’t an active shooter threat but an active bomb threat, and our manager made the decision for us to reopen even though she wasn’t in the store. And none of us were involved in that decision even though we were the ones who were facing that threat.

I was furious, and I had to go into work the next day, and the threat still hadn’t been resolved. And I was just like, why am I here again? You know? Yeah. It was just absolutely ridiculous. And eventually we confronted our manager at the time and she pinned it on the shift supervisor and made our shift supervisor feel super guilty. She was in an impossible position, I think. But yeah, we’re just not heard. It’s pretty obvious that they don’t care about our wellbeing. They don’t care how many panic attacks we have on the floor. As long as mobile orders are coming through and Starbucks is getting that money, it doesn’t matter to Starbucks if people actually get their drinks is what I’ve seen, they just care about their profit.

Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus. I’m so sorry that you all went through that. What a dystopian fucking sentence to say. The bomb threat had not been resolved, but we’d been ordered to reopen anyway. Why? Why?

Nadia Vitek: Yeah, exactly. The same with the Cornell students, Cornell students had to take their finals in the same building when the bomb threat wasn’t resolved. No institution was handling it right. And I feel that speaks to where we’re at in general, which is really scary. But still, Starbucks was not right for that.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. There’s a whole lot of people failing us right now. And again, it’s why even though things feel, rightly, so hopeless, the one place where I am finding hope is wherever I see working people like yourself and your coworkers saying, we’re going to do something about this.

Nadia Vitek: Yeah. Hell yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez: We’re done waiting for the people who are the decision makers to fix our problems for us. I think that’s what we all need to hear and see, and support and participate in right now. And I think that it’s been incredible what you all have done at your store and across Ithaca, and I wanted to ask if you could walk us through like what it’s been like since the union vote. Because it really, again, I guess for whatever legal purposes, we’ve got to tiptoe around saying what we’re all thinking. But your store took that step to not only unionize, but also, if I understand correctly, you did a walkout over this grease trap, and now it feels and looks like Starbucks is making an example out of you all. So I guess for folks listening, could you kind of walk us through that timeline?

Nadia Vitek: Yeah, absolutely. So what I can say is a few weeks after we filed for our union, we got a new manager. Because we were in between managers, and this manager was brought in from West Hollywood. There was also another support manager from West Hollywood, but she became our acting new manager. And she is very skilled at her job in terms of union busting. She’s not, in my opinion, a very good manager, but she’s very good at union busting. And she is like, I don’t know, for lack of any other way to put it, she was terrorizing us. I do feel a little traumatized by the way she’s treated us. Even to this point, I feel pretty confident she didn’t have an involvement in the decision of the store closure itself, but she really put our store in the position where they could try to justify a closure, you know what I mean? But anyways.

So she did a lot of things to try to dissuade us from voting for our union, and a lot of us thought that once we voted for our union things would get better. Maybe she would finally go away. But things started to get worse. It became pretty clear that her new strategy was to make our lives so miserable at work that we would all quit and then there would be no union. Which, it did work in terms of making our lives miserable, but she’s not going to make us break our union because everyone that she hires supports the union. It’s not looking good for her. But yeah, she rearranged the store, and rearranged the store pretty poorly. A lot of the ways that she rearranged the store were extremely inconvenient and made our jobs harder. And also lots of other things.

She’s very, very strict on following policy to the letter and started writing people up if they didn’t do things the way that she wanted them to. She wrote my coworker – The one who liked my shirt that I mentioned earlier – She gave him a final written warning. Well, she gave him a writeup and then a final written warning. Things like when you closed the store yesterday, the floors were dirty or something, and forgetting to do little tasks. But the thing is we’ve been understaffed this whole time, working at this job has been so rough. Understaffing is also a huge issue, we just don’t have the people on the floor to do everything so of course something’s not going to be done. And so how is it fair that you put someone’s job at risk for something that’s not even in our control?

And for context, a final written warning means that if he gets written up again, he’ll be fired. He has that, my specific coworker who got the final written warning, has been targeted by her really heavily. We also have a fan that blows cool air on us because our AC doesn’t really reach us behind the bar. And she decided one day that it’s not up to standard” and that it’s a tripping hazard, and so she unplugged it and said we can only use it when the store is closed. And it started getting really hot recently, and so the coworker I was just talking about – And this actually prompted her to give him a final written warning. He was like, I’m sorry, it’s too hot, I’m going to leave this out, you can do whatever you want to me. She took the fan and threw it in the trash and then she left. She went outside, took a phone call, came back, handed him that final written warning that had reasoning that backed up a few weeks behind too. It was just like, wow. I think I might be losing my train of thought a little bit.

Maximillian Alvarez: No, again, it’s hard to keep up with all of this, and I think –

Nadia Vitek: Exactly. I could talk for hours.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, that’s not your fault.

Nadia Vitek: Right, exactly. We submitted a complaint even before the store closure and my affidavit took four and a half hours, there was so much to say.

Maximillian Alvarez: And even just the fan thing. Like again, I got to spend one summer in Ithaca, it was great. But it gets humid as shit over there.

Nadia Vitek: Exactly.

Maximillian Alvarez: And so I can’t even imagine what it would be like working there without even the fan pushing the cool air back to you all. That just seems cruel.

Nadia Vitek: Exactly. We haven’t even gone to the hottest part of the summer yet… It’s not good.

Maximillian Alvarez: No, they got to walk up that big-ass hill to get there.

Nadia Vitek: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. It’s rough. Another tactic that she has is that she has been really strict about giving people time off. So for context, my store has a lot of Cornell students that work there. During the school year, it’s probably a majority of us are Cornell students. At spring break time, students want to go home and see their families, right? Well, that’s crazy. So yeah. In the past, people have never had issues getting the time off to see their families or do whatever they want to do on their spring breaks. And our manager denied everybody’s, except for one person’s.

And that wasn’t everyone, for context, there was the manager before her approved everybody’s. But then when our new manager came in, she denied everyone’s requests that we’re still pending except for one person, to clarify. And one person confronted her on this and she was like, I already bought bus tickets, and everyone requested well ahead of time, over three weeks in advance. And so yeah, my coworker was like, I already got bus tickets, I want to see my family. And our manager was basically like, well, if you don’t show up on these shifts, we’ll have to separate you. Meaning firing you. And that coworker, I was working that day, she left that conversation in tears and I had to comfort her. It was really, really brutal. And so I had five coworkers who were in the position of like, am I supposed to stay? Is it good to not get fired, or see my family? And that was really rough.

And she did that over summer break a little bit too. A handful of people wanted to go home and not work at Starbucks for whatever reason. And in the past people have gone on leaves of absence and she refused to give anyone leaves of absence.

Oh my God. Also, this is crazy. I don’t really talk about this that much, but I think it’s worth talking about. We had one no vote at our store, and that no vote got pushed out by our manager as well. So she is like an older partner. I’m really bad at guessing age, so I’m really sorry if she happens to be listening. She probably won’t be. Maybe like 60 something. And she was having a hard time reaching something. She was asking somebody else to grab that thing for her, because when our manager rearranged everything she put so many things out of reach. But our manager said that she had to get it herself because that was her position, and someone grabbing that for her would disrupt the play that had been decided.

And so my coworker was like, okay, I’m going to get a ladder, then. And then my manager was like, no, you can’t get a ladder. If you want to get a ladder, you’ll have to go through disability to request that. And I wasn’t there that day, I don’t know how my coworker took that, but she was really mad. She might have walked off, I don’t know. But she was like, okay, I’m going to take a leave of absence and then come back when this manager is gone. Because even though she was against the union, she, this coworker admitted to me, she was like, yeah, this is totally union busting.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, just because I know that you got to run in a minute and I’m –

Nadia Vitek: I can probably stay maybe five minutes after 4:00.

Maximillian Alvarez: Okay. Okay, cool. Well, I appreciate that. And it’s just like, again, thinking about this in context. These are all the little and big ways that Starbucks is responding to this unionization effort. We’re hearing, and for folks listening, you’ve been hearing the term retaliation thrown around a lot. And that means something, because retaliation is like employers retaliating, taking adverse action against workers for legally protected activities, and organizing your workplaces included in that. But yet we’re seeing Starbucks firing seven organizers in Memphis in what looked like a very clear act of retaliation. Starbucks firing pro-union workers at stores all over the place. Starbucks under scheduling or descheduling pro-union workers, as Nadia mentioned earlier. Or separating people in different stores, even, and not putting them together on the same shift.

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These all look and sound and appear to be forms of retaliation, but the closing of this Ithaca store really feels like an acceleration of that. And so, Nadia, I was wondering, for folks listening, if you could give people a sense of that question of retaliation. Do you and your coworkers, how do you see the way that Starbucks has responded to this unionization campaign around the country in the terms of retaliation?

Nadia Vitek: In the terms of our store closure?

Maximillian Alvarez: Sure. Yeah. And then anything else that you’re seeing around the country. Is it, I know that again, we have to be careful here, but should people be looking at this as retaliation? Or I guess, how are you all kind of taking all of this in?

Nadia Vitek: Definitely it’s retaliation, I don’t think there’s any other way to look at it. But I think on top of that, their goal in this isn’t to harm us at the College Ave store, but to intimidate workers everywhere who are thinking about unionizing. I think their goal is to send the message that if you unionize, these are the consequences. This is just a new escalation in their union busting campaign as a whole, not just in Ithaca. And it has consequences that are far reaching, which is why us at College Avenue, we’re going to fight this as hard as we can, and we have the support financially and in other ways to do that.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, goes without saying but I’m going to say it anyway, that we are with you, and we’re sending all of our love and solidarity to you and your coworkers there at the College Avenue store. And in the final minute that I’ve got you, I just wanted to ask if you could tell listeners where things stand now over there and what folks listening can do to show support for you all?

Nadia Vitek: There was actually a protest outside of our store today. That was really great. But in terms of the store closure and stuff, we’re also in bargaining right now. We had our first session yesterday, which was disappointing, to say the least. They came totally unprepared. We on Friday had asked them many questions that we wanted answers to. A written list of why the stores closed, documentation to prove that the grease trap can’t be fixed and the store has to be closed, et cetera. They had no answers. And we even in the meeting were like, do you normally come to meetings this unprepared?

Also we found out that if we don’t come to an agreement by Friday, our jobs are basically in limbo and we won’t be transferred. It’ll be, I’m assuming, like we’re on leave of absence. So we see that as them, someone described it as holding our wages hostage so we just accept whatever proposal they want. And we’re not going to give in that easily. But they’re still up to some questionable and bad behavior. So yeah, we’re going to be in bargaining for a while.

And to support us, that’s a good question. At the protest today, we announced that we’re calling for a boycott of Starbucks stores in Ithaca. So if you’re in Ithaca, don’t come to Starbucks. And if you do, get water and leave a cash tip. But yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know what message to give to people outside of Ithaca other than just keep paying attention to what’s going on, because more will emerge for sure.

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Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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