ITHACA, N.Y.—Students at Cornell University organized and demanded the legacy institution cut ties with the multi-national coffee corporation Starbucks on May 11. Students entered and occupied Day Hall, the primary administrative building on campus, in response to the company’s announcement on May 5 that it will close both remaining locations in Ithaca later this month.
Around 2 p.m. student activists and supporters rallied at Ho Plaza on Cornell’s campus to voice their demands before heading over to Day Hall to address administrators. Students occupied Day Hall from 3 p.m. to around 8 p.m., when they were asked by officers from the Cornell University Police Department to exit the building. 12 student organizers decided to pitch tents in a grassy area across the street from the building.
The closures will result in the loss of approximately 40 jobs once held by both community members and students. Workers at one of the two remaining locations on East Seneca Street by the Ithaca Commons walked out of the café May 10 in reaction to the closing announcement and are on strike. They have picketed the last three days in front of the store.
As of Friday, May 12, the day after the initial rally and occupation, student organizers awoke in their tents and reentered Day Hall around 9 a.m. and stayed until they were granted a Zoom meeting with Cornell President Martha Pollack. The outcome of those meetings is currently unknown.
Students are demanding the institution release details of the contract between Starbucks and Cornell that permits Starbucks-affiliated campus cafes, as well as a verbal commitment from the university to switch to a different, “ethical” vendor, approved by activists occupying Day Hall and by Starbucks Workers United by Fall 2024.
Nick Wilson, student organizer and former Starbucks employee, was a prominent voice heard at the rally, and told the crowd “the actions of the corporation are unprecedented and illegal,” and in “clear retaliation” to Ithaca becoming the first fully unionized city anywhere in the National Starbucks Union Movement in 2022.
Student organizers at Cornell University have been working alongside national labor union organizations like Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, to strategize and mobilize their efforts to make a change.
“We’ve been working alongside national unions and have done extensive research,” Wilson said in a phone interview with The Ithaca Voice during the campout across the street from Day Hall. “There’s no example from the past of a multinational corporation pulling out completely from a locality in response to a union campaign. And they did that in Ithaca.”
He also noted union and student organizers believe the corporation is “making multiple millions of dollars of our tuition every year” through its contract with Cornell University. “We’re calling for that contract to be canceled so our tuition stops going to them as long as they’re firing our co-workers and friends.” The financial claim cannot be verified because, as previously noted, the contract has not yet been public.
Student organizer Danielle Donovan said in an interview following the occupation that “these business deals with companies and with universities are a huge source of profit for them. Maybe even more so than the stores.” She said it is clear that Starbucks has shown they do not care about making profit in Ithaca.
“So we’re going to let them make no profit by forcing them to cut ties with Cornell,” Donovan said. “If they want to treat us this way, and fire our friends, fire these workers, disrespect our community, we’re not going to let them keep profiting from us students.”
In between shouting chants like “Get up, get down, Ithaca is a union town,” and “When Starbucks workers are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back,” community members and non-student Starbucks workers shared their stories and unemployment concerns with the crowd.
Representatives of Starbucks and Cornell University did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication. Last weekend, when news broke of Starbucks closing the last two stores, company officials insisted that the closures were a result of strategic business maneuvers and not retaliation for unionizing, attributing the closings to various struggles at the stores.
Kolya Vitek, Ithaca resident and Starbucks employee, said they have been through this once before. They worked at the College Avenue location before the corporation closed it just two months after a strike workers conducted last year.
Vitek’s coworkers were a part of one of the first strikes in the Starbucks Workers United Movement history and accused the corporation of closing the location in retaliation to employees voting 19-1 in favor of joining the Workers United union.
“In their emails, it shows they shut down the College Avenue store in retaliation for the strike we went on,” Vitek said. “And a year later, they are being so ridiculously reckless and are deciding to shut down every single Starbucks in Ithaca. It’s really devastating.”
They said they knew of people losing their jobs who have begun thinking about moving out of Ithaca, as well as students who are unsure how they will make tuition payments.
“It’s really disgusting that these people who are not a part of this community are deciding to shutter these stores in really profitable locations,” Vitek said.
The emails were sent in June of last year between Denise Nelsen, senior vice president of U.S. operations and Rossann Williams, then head of Starbucks’ business in North America. They discussed concerns about media attention directed to the College Avenue location.
The correspondence was disclosed by Starbucks in a trial in February at the US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), where the body ruled Starbucks closing the College Avenue location in 2022 was an illegal action. Appeals of NLRB rulings can take years in federal court and the agency has no authority to make companies pay punitive damages for violations.
The corporation continues to “insist it closed the café for legitimate business reasons, saying its concerns with the store stretched back to the previous year,” according to reporting by The Huffington Post.
The regulatory body called on Starbucks to reopen the College Avenue location back in November 2022, and instead, the corporation closed the two remaining locations in Ithaca.
Vitek said they were able to relocate to another Starbucks location last year when the corporation shut down their original place of work. But now, with Starbucks shuttering all locations in Ithaca, that is no longer an option.
The Starbucks locations in Barnes and Noble and Target in Ithaca do remain open because they are not corporate locations, are not unionized and are not impacted by the corporations’ decision to close the others in the city.
Talía Silva Vallejo, a Starbucks employee at the Commons location in Ithaca, said the corporation gave workers only three weeks’ notice of the store closures with “no answers or explanation whatsoever.” She also led a staff walk-out from that location on May 10.
She also addressed concerns about her inability to relocate to another store in the city and said, “we’re going to be jobless in two weeks with no possibilities to transfer [to another location].”
“They don’t care if we have to support a family or about our individual situation,” Silva-Vallejo said at the rally. “They will not exploit us. We will not stop fighting. So please, don’t stop fighting for us.”
After speeches, chants and rallying, students arrived in the lobby of Day Hall. Cold water bottles and snacks were dispersed to participants and Wagner began an Instagram Live stream on the Starbucks Workers United account.
“We’re going to stay on this live until we get what we want,” Wilson said. “We are not going to leave Day Hall until we get the terms of this contract on paper and until we get a verbal commitment to switch vendors by Fall 2023.”
It was a few minutes until someone from the school’s administration came to speak to the students and after an initial interaction with an Associate Dean, Dean Marla Love came to level with the organizers.
In an interview, both Wilson and Donovan recounted Love committing to a conversation with the organizers, but requested the conversation be held at a later date.
“They said they didn’t have time to properly ‘look into it’ because this is the first they [the administration] were hearing about it,” Donovan said. “But they’ve had the past three days to talk to lawyers, talk amongst themselves to figure out what to do. But they chose not to do that and instead, to tell us incorrectly, that this was the first they were hearing about it.”
She said students have been participating in an organized email-writing campaign that started May 8 to President Pollack and Cornell Dining Services. Over 900 emails were sent by students to administrators before the occupation began.
After hours of generally unproductive conversations with various administrators and demanding results, the student organizers were at an impasse.
“They were telling us they did not have the authority to meet our demands,” Wagner said. He said they weren’t leaving until they made progress.
At around 8 p.m., organizers were being informed Cornell Police officers were entering Day Hall and made a plan. Officers told students they had to vacate the building before it closed at 9 p.m. or risk disciplinary action with the school. If they weren’t able to occupy the building past closing time, students decided they would camp across the street and come back first thing in the morning to continue demanding action.
It is finals week for Cornell students, but that did not deter them from standing their ground. Freshman Kieran Adams told The Ithaca Voice in an interview that he took the oral portion of his Hindi exam inside Day Hall during the occupation.
“I hope it went well,” Adams said. “I was studying during the opening parts of the occupation and eventually, I had to go find a quiet spot to zoom my professor for the exam.”
Donovan said over 50 students came out to the rally and occupation during finals week.
“It shows just how much people care about this issue and are willing to dedicate their time and energy and sacrifice their grades,” she said.
Student activists like Wilson and Donovan said what they do here matters widely.
“What happens here sets the tone, sets the precedent, for Starbucks and what they think they can get away with across the country,” Donovan said. “NLRB requested they reopen the College Avenue store and they responded to closing them all. They have no regard for the law. If it won’t hold them accountable, we will. We are the ones who spend money there. We effect their bottom line.”