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TIMING IS EVERYTHING

Why is Starbucks shutting down a location that voted to unionize?

A Starbucks sign featuring its logo is reflected in the window of a store
Reuters/Lucas Jackson
The timing of Starbucks’ decision is bound to bring the company under scrutiny.
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published Last updated

When Starbucks employees at a branch in Ithaca, New York, voted to unionize in April, the store’s working conditions were among their concerns. One longtime employee said the grease trap at the Starbucks location on Cornell University’s College Avenue had been broken since he’d started working there back in 2018. “It’s something we’ve been begging them to fix for years,” shift supervisor Benjamin South told The Ithacan. “It’s just so unsanitary.”

The grease trap was such a problem, in fact, that the Starbucks workers went on strike a week after unionizing when it overflowed, creating what they saw as a safety hazard. (Maggots were involved.) Starbucks, meanwhile, took the position that the grease trap spill did not constitute a risk to employees’ and customers’ health and safety, and that it wasn’t necessary to shut the store down until it was repaired.

Now Starbucks apparently agrees that issues like the grease trap are a real problem. But the company’s solution is to shut the store down entirely.

Starbucks plans to permanently close the College Ave. store on June 10, a move the employees’ Workers United union characterized as illegal retaliation in a filing with the US National Labor and Relations Board last week.

The timing of Starbucks’ decision to close the College Ave. store is bound to bring the company under scrutiny, particularly in light of allegations that it’s engaged in other union-busting tactics such as firing union leaders rolling out improved benefits that exclude union employees. So far, 100 Starbucks in the US have voted to organize. 

Starbucks union accuses the company of illegal retaliation

Starbucks denies that its decision to close the store is tied to union activity, citing staffing and “time and attendance” issues—as well as the condition of the store’s facilities.

In a Friday email to the union, reported by Bloomberg, Starbucks attorney Alan Model specifically cited the grease trap among the reasons for the store closing, writing, “As you know, there have been many issues with regard to the condition of the store (e.g., the grease trap) and it does not make sense to further operate the store.”

For the store’s employees, Starbucks’ decision to invoke an issue they organized around as a contributing factor to the store’s closure seems to add insult to injury. “This is clearly retaliation for our small grasps at dignity as workers, but our strike showed them what power we have,” shift supervisor South said in a statement to NPR.

A Starbucks spokesperson told Quartz that “[w]e open and close stores as a regular part of our operations.” The spokesperson also noted that “we have immediate opportunities available in the market” for Ithaca employees affected by the store closure.

Is it illegal to close a store after it’s unionized?

The question of whether it’s illegal for Starbucks to shutter the College Ave. location is a complicated one. While US law prevents companies from retaliating against workers for organizing, businesses are within their rights to close entirely or to shut down branches, including recently unionized ones.

However, the NLRB says that it’s illegal to close a facility “if your motive is to chill unionism at any remaining facility.” Employers are also barred from taking action against workers involved in union activities. The Workers United union will be arguing that Starbucks’ decision isn’t business—it’s personal.

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