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October 31, 2023 HUMAN RIGHTS

Students Leverage Their University Affiliation to Gain Ground in the Fight Against Starbucks’s Union-Busting Efforts

by Zeynep Biyikli

As the worker-led unionizing effort at Starbucks cafes has grown since the first drive in Buffalo, New York, won its election in 2021, university students across the country have reconsidered their school’s financial relationships with one of the most prolific union-busters in modern history.


Strikingly, many young, queer-identifying workers are leading the unionization effort. Starbucks self-reports that the average age of a barista is 24 years old, and most are either students or individuals who plan to attend college. Starbucks works hard to cultivate a progressive image, advertising its health care and education benefits to full- and part-time employees.

Yet, the company has been accused of over 1,100 violations of federal labor law in recent years, including terminating union organizers and refusing to bargain in good faith.

Starbucks, like Amazon and Apple, has conducted its union-busting effort with the help of the world’s largest management-side labor and employment law firm, Littler Mendelson. Littler’s strategy utilizes the intricacies of labor law to block organizing efforts and, when unions still succeed in winning elections, to delay bargaining indefinitely. Littler’s lawyers make the case that individual stores should not be allowed to hold union elections but rather that all stores in a geographic region must vote together in a single election. So far, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has rejected this argument as case law has usually presumed a single-store bargaining unit in the retail food sector. Delaying bargaining allows Starbucks to drive up union costs and intimidate workers.

Since 1955, union membership in the United States has steadily declined, settling at just 12 percent despite sustained approval for unions, which has never fallen below 48 percent, according to a recent Gallup study. Rick Fantasia and Kim Voss, in their book Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement, trace the start of this decline to the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which eroded union security by prohibiting secondary boycotts and jurisdictional strikes, enabling “right to work” laws, granting presidential authority to intervene in strikes, and rigidifying the union certification process. Widening the gap between leadership and rank-and-file members, Taft-Hartley introduced formal labor board elections, standardized grievance procedures, and implemented automatic dues deductions. These measures, followed by the financial deregulation of the 1980s, secured the dominance of conservative “business unionism” over egalitarian rank-and-file unionism, discouraging the expression of any solidarity seen as a threat to the existing order.

The service sector is built on the three pillars of high sales volume, low labor costs, and high technology, necessitating high levels of labor “flexibility,” which is easier to achieve with a nonunion part-time labor force. According to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report, workers in accommodation and food services have had the highest quit rate among all industries since July 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These often low-paid jobs require in-person attendance, posing health risks to workers and elevating stress levels in the workplace.

Decades of stagnant wages, the pandemic, a surplus of service job openings, and a dissatisfied young workforce have urged workers to grow more assertive. As of August 2023, 337 Starbucks stores and over 8,500 workers in the United States have voted to unionize with Workers United, a Service Employee International Union affiliate. Their success can be partially attributed to the campaign’s emphasis on worker-led organizing that seeks to engage as many workers as possible in organizational decision-making and contract bargaining. 

In light of Starbucks’s union-busting, students at universities across the country have pushed their universities to cut ties with Starbucks.

In light of Starbucks’s union-busting, students at universities across the country have pushed their universities to cut ties with Starbucks.


Student Movement

In light of Starbucks’s union-busting, students at the University of Washington (UW), Cornell University, and the University of California have launched campaigns to push their universities to cut ties with Starbucks. Starbucks reports that there are over 300 on-campus locations and more nearby. With this, Starbucks has become a convenient and reliable choice among young people for daily coffee. The student and faculty populations of these schools constitute a significant consumer base for Starbucks. These partnerships benefit Starbucks financially and foster lasting brand loyalty beyond graduation.

Cornell’s north and central campuses serve Starbucks beverages in their dining halls through the company’s partnership with Nestle’s “We Proudly Serve” program. After employees at all three Starbucks cafes in Ithaca, New York, voted to unionize in 2022, Starbucks announced that all Ithaca-based Starbucks locations would permanently close by May 26, 2023. In response, Cornell students took over Day Hall on May 12, sent the university over 900 emails, passed two Student Assembly resolutions, and garnered nearly 100 faculty signatures for a petition to demand Cornell cut its ties with Starbucks. Student organizers demanded their university reveal its Starbucks contract and transition to an ethical coffee source like Gimme! Coffee, a local co-op run by unionized workers. With mounting student pressure and a July 6, 2023, NLRB decision where an administrative law judge ruled that Starbucks violated federal labor law when it closed one of its stores in Ithaca, Cornell has agreed to terminate its partnership with Starbucks by June 2025.

UW and Starbucks signed a 10-year sponsorship agreement in 2013 that expired at the end of June 2023. The contract allows UW’s Housing and Food Services to operate licensed stores that sell Starbucks beverages and food in exchange for a 7 percent royalty and other fees. As part of the contract, Starbucks paid UW more than $10 million and was granted the titles of “Exclusive Coffee Provider” and “Signature Partner.” In fall 2022, Region 19 of the NLRB alleged that union employees at the Starbucks in UW’s Husky Stadium had been prevented from working premium shifts during football games. On June 14, 2023, Starbucks agreed to a settlement requiring the company to offer back pay to 10 affected employees and vow non-interference with its workers’ rights to unionize. Notably, this marked the first time Starbucks settled an unfair labor practice charge without disclaiming guilt.

In May 2023, students at UW wrote a letter to their president asking the university not to renew its contract with Starbucks, which got over 330 signatures from students, faculty, campus unions, and student-run organizations. On May 31, workers and students gathered in the university’s Red Square, where they presented the letter to the UW president and conveyed their message with a skit spotlighting Starbucks’s union-busting track record and its contract with UW. In response, President Ana Mari Cauce only released a statement acknowledging UW’s commitment to socially responsible partners and expressing the university’s preference for collaborations that uphold workers’ rights worldwide.

The University of California Student Association, representing over 230,000 students, unanimously passed a resolution supporting Starbucks Workers United, calling on the University of California to cut business ties with Starbucks over the company’s union-busting. In August 2023, the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) passed a resolution with 94 percent of delegates in favor asking YDSA chapters to establish relationships with unionized Starbucks partners in their communities and begin solidarity work with Starbucks Workers United.

Even when the NLRB finds violations of workers’ rights to organize, the agency’s administrative law judges can only impose “make whole” remedies such as back pay and reinstatement, along with the posting of notices. Fines are so routine and inconsequential that corporations like Starbucks simply incorporate them as regular business costs. “But if institutions like Cornell that represent young people and represent more altruistic values are willing to take a stand,” a student organizer at Cornell and ex-Starbucks employee Nick Wilson told Bloomberg, “I think that represents a huge opportunity for workers to gain some leverage.” With these contracts worth tens of millions of dollars, students have unique leverage to win ground for unions and demonstrate that there are real economic repercussions to union-busting.

Anthropologist David Graeber and several other scholars note the increasing bureaucratization of U.S. universities, which not only consolidates social stratification in the name of efficiency but also reduces democracy. Student governments often offer minimal representation and wield little influence in university decision-making. The recent success of the campaign at Cornell to break ties with Starbucks and past efforts, like the student campaign that successfully pressured 16 U.S. colleges and universities to end their sweatshop contracts with VF Corp (the owner of Jansport, North Face, and Vans), have proven the effectiveness of student activism and strength in solidarity.


The labor movement is experiencing a resurgence in popularity, especially among young people. Research from the Center for American Progress has shown that Gen Z is the most pro-union living generation, more pro-union than their predecessors were at their age. With increasing income inequality in the United States, unions can help give a voice to young workers to achieve economic security. Students are fighting against a range of other issues on campus, like austerity budgets, tuition hikes, and investments in fossil fuel infrastructure. Students in solidarity with Starbucks workers characterize their activism not as a call to abandon these other struggles but as a way to integrate labor solidarity works into the existing ecology of campus organizing campaigns. While building strong coalitions that drive political education efforts and grow support for unions, students are ready to continue leveraging their university affiliation to advance workers’ rights and challenge exploitative practices.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and are not those of Workers United.

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Zeynep Biyikli

Student Organizer

Zeynep Biyikli is a senior at the University of Washington (UW) pursuing a BA in Economics and a BA in Global and Regional Studies. She is a lead student organizer pushing for UW to end its contract with Starbucks. She also works with youth in Washington state to address issues related to education equity as the Youth Advocacy Lead at the nonprofit Supporting Partnerships in Education and Beyond.