One week before Starbucks Red Cup Day—an annual event when the coffee chain hands out holiday-themed reusable cups, slated for November 16—Elinor Clark and her fellow members of Georgetown University’s Students Against Starbucks group were gathered in a classroom in Healy Hall.
The imposing Gothic Revival building houses the university’s administrative offices along with classrooms, and is a National Historic Landmark. It felt like a fitting location to participate in what Clark called a “historic movement”—the labor movement that has swept across more than 360 (and counting) Starbucks stores, and which is set to hit hundreds of college campuses on Red Cup Day.
As members of Starbucks Workers United plan to strike at Starbucks stores on Red Cup Day—as they did in 2022—college students are planning their own actions, including boycotts, strikes, and picket lines. It’s part of what the union and student organizers are calling the Red Cup Rebellion.
On that Thursday night, one week before one of the busiest retail days for the coffee giant, Georgetown students were gathered to join a virtual organizing meeting with other student groups who oppose Starbucks on their college campuses, and with members of Starbucks Workers United. Representative Maxwell Frost, the first Gen Z member of Congress, also appeared on the Zoom, sharing his own experiences with political organizing, and noting that the labor movement is one of his biggest inspirations. More than 300 people RSVPed for the meeting, representing more than 70 college campuses across the country.
Cary Tilton, a union organizer with Workers United-SEIU, opened the meeting by sharing his own experience on the picket lines for the Hollywood writers strike earlier in the year. “I saw why that strike was so effective,” he said of the WGA actions. “It’s the solidarity across the industry, between writers and actors and all the tech staff and everything. And that’s what we’re trying to build here, that solidarity between students and [Starbucks] workers.”
Starbucks has around 300 locations on college campuses across the country, and those young consumers are a part of the company’s core demographic. But some students, who have either worked at Starbucks stores or simply watched the company rack up hundreds of charges of unfair labor practices as part of its union-busting over the past two years, are looking to cut ties with the coffee giant. And they want their colleges to do it too.
Listeners on the organizing call heard how Cornell students demanded that the university end its contract with Starbucks, by sending more than 1,000 emails to the university president, selling union-made coffee in front of a Starbucks location to raise money for the workers’ strike fund, and even staging a takeover of the school’s main administration building. For two days, between 30 and 50 students occupied Day Hall, negotiating with school administrators. “[It] ended with the president of our university being forced to speak with us,” Grant Moravec, one of the Cornell students involved, said on the call. “And that was because we put Cornell in a position where they couldn’t just ignore us.” Cornell announced it wouldn’t renew its contract with Starbucks in August.
David Ramirez, a fourth-year student at UCLA, worked at Starbucks for two and a half years throughout the pandemic. He shared how, after he left the company, he transitioned to becoming a student leader fighting against Starbucks. “I’ve kept up the fight for Starbucks workers because our struggles really are intersectional, and we can’t let people tell us to just quit and look for another job when we feel that a company is exploiting us because the next one will just do the same thing,” he told the organizing call. “As college students, we are an important customer demographic base for this multibillion dollar company. And when they see that their reputation is faltering, we will force them to the bargaining table.” UCLA’s student government has voted unanimously to approve a resolution demanding the administration cut ties with Starbucks.
Clark spoke as well, with Georgetown Students Against Starbucks members on camera behind her. Clark started working at Starbucks at age 16, and at 17 led the union effort at her store in Mill Valley, California. (Ultimately, that election fell short by one vote, but Clark was then involved in a National Labor Relations Board case in which a judge recently ruled that the company owed her back pay for denying her a training role because of her union involvement).
Now, at 18, Clark is helping to circulate a petition calling for the rebranding of a Starbucks franchise on campus, and calling for the university to divest its nearly $5 million in Starbucks stock. That petition already has almost 300 signatures. The situation at Georgetown is slightly complicated; the university doesn’t have a direct contract with Starbucks. Instead, its food service provider, Aramark, has a license agreement with the coffee giant. The Starbucks store there is a franchise, and its employees are not actually Starbucks employees, but Aramark employees (who are all unionized through Unite Here). Students are calling for a rebrand, meaning Aramark and the school replace that location with another coffee company.
Each student-led campaign is unique to their college campus, Clark told Fast Company after the organizing meeting, in part because each school has a different relationship with Starbucks. But she hopes that the meeting inspires more students to take up the fight, and to take action on Red Cup Day. “Money talks at the end of the day, and a lot of Starbucks’s revenue comes from youth. We also contribute a lot to their branding,” she says, noting how students walking around campus with a Starbucks logo on their cup is akin to free advertising. “If we’re able to take Starbucks off college campuses, we’re removing, a), a lot of revenue and b), giving them bad press.”
The labor movement has grown in the past few years, including high-profile actions not only against Starbucks but also Amazon, against Hollywood studios, among autoworkers, and more. And that’s brought an increased awareness of labor issues, and unions, generally. In 2022, public support for labor unions hit 71%, the highest it’s been since 1965. For many, especially college students, rising awareness of the labor movement coincides with a realization about how companies’ public perceptions may not match their actions.
“There are people who are becoming aware that these progressive companies, who claim to have such liberal values, who claim to put their workers first, [that] it’s all just a facade,” says Fiona Naughton, a 19-year-old sophomore at Georgetown also involved with the school’s Students Against Starbucks group. Starbucks has specifically been lauded for its progressive values, she notes, like its LGBTQ+ support or worker benefits. “On campus, I think we were just kind of jarred by the hypocrisy of that, talking to Starbucks workers and learning about the discrimination they get from their employers, learning about the intimidation that they experienced when they tried to unionize. . . . When we were tuned into that hypocrisy, it became very clear to us that keeping Starbucks on our campus would be a violation of everything that Georgetown stands for.”
A key part of the organizing call was to let students know that they can take action too. On the Starbucks Workers United website, a tool helps students find Red Cup Rebellion events at their campus, and on the organizing call, workers encouraged students to create their own event if they didn’t see one for their school. At the time of writing, the website listed more than 180 events (though some included placeholder hours and location).
Clark also wants students to realize the importance of the labor movement at large, and how this current effort stands out in history. When she was first organizing her Starbucks store while in high school, Clark was taking AP U.S. history. Her teacher focused on the workers’ movement, explaining the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that is part of Workers United’s own union history. “To be a part of the union that these women began, to be learning about organizing while actively participating in the movement, was so magical,” she says. “It really feels like we are writing the history books.”