(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Local Starbucks employees have started a campaign to close the cafe’s City Hall location. 

In an online petition published last week, Philly-based union organizers called the global chain “today’s worst violator of labor law” and suggested that “any number of local union coffee” shops would be a better fit for the Dilworth Park kiosk. 

The national Starbucks Workers United union on Monday posted a link to the petition, saying Philadelphia government is hypocritical for allowing the brand to operate on public land.

The coffee giant’s contrary response to calls for collective bargaining, the union said, is out of line with city councilmembers’ claims that they advocate for and support workers’ right to organize.

Describing the coffee giant as out of compliance with Philly’s groundbreaking Fair Workweek law, the union called on City Council to work with the Center City District, which manages the park, to cut out any profit Starbucks could garner from the location, which is a franchise run by a local caterer.

“While their voices and their words might say they support us, their actions and where their money is coming from is not necessarily saying the same thing,” Jo Schermerhorn, a local SBWU member who works at the 34th and Walnut location, told Billy Penn. 

This is all unfolding in the midst of a weeklong strike that roughly 3,000 Starbucks employees at over 150 locations say they will participate in, responding to the removal of Pride month decorations around the nation. 

The petition is unique, said Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull. “This is the first time we’ve seen Workers United demand and take action to close a store,” Trull told Billy Penn. 

He was sure to note that the kiosk in question is not owned by Starbucks. 

The site incorporates the brand through a “license agreement,” according to JoAnn Loviglio, the Center City District’s director of communications. Brulee Catering, based in Pennsport, runs the cafe. 

It “employs between 7 and 10 Philadelphians who are employees of Brulee, not Starbucks,” Loviglio stressed. Brulee’s agreement with Starbucks runs through 2029, and their partnership with the CCD runs through 2034. 

A location full of controversy 

The Dilworth Park Starbucks was causing hubbub even before it opened — this isn’t even the first petition calling for its closure. 

In 2019, the debate was about whether a private firm should be allowed to lease property in a newly revitalized public park. Conrad Benner of the Streets Dept. blog argued it would not “serve the public,” and his petition to stop the Starbucks kiosk garnered over 8,000 signatures.  

Benner later published a co-written piece with Center City District President Paul Levy that noted that, having gone through all approvals, reversing course on the location would create “many legal and financial penalties.” Despite disagreements, they agreed that “local business should be celebrated, and excessive corporate branding in public spaces should be avoided.” 

Rendering of the coffee kiosk at Dilworth Park in advance of its opening in 2019. (Center City District) Credit: Center City District

Now the dispute hinges not on private encroachment of public space, but the specific anti-union actions workers say Starbucks has taken. 

Despite a 2022 Council resolution in favor of organizing efforts at local Starbucks locations, the new petition notes, the company is “a repeat offender of Philadelphia’s own fair work week ordinances.”

Schermerhorn, the union member who worked at the 34th and Walnut store, said they specifically experienced those offenses.

“My store has been closed for renovation,” they said — it’s set to reopen in early July, according to a Yelp notice — “and the handling of that was 100% a union busting tactic.” 

He’s taken to working at neighboring stores in Center City West and University City, describing the transition as poorly handled by managers, leading to the delayed and last-minute scheduling the Fair Workweek law was meant to prevent. 

When the union has pointed out Philadelphia’s regulations around scheduling and regular hours, the response from management has been passive, Schermerhorn said. “Managers don’t have an answer. It’s been very much, ‘Oh, nothing I can do.’’  

The National Labor Relations Board has decided in favor of Philadelphia Starbucks organizers on a few occasions — calling for the reinstatement of illegally fired workers in February, similar to a July 2021 decision on wrongful firings meant to disrupt organizing.

‘Serve local coffee instead’

“Now is the time, stop doing business with Starbucks at Dilworth Park and serve local Philadelphia coffee instead,” read’s the petition’s closing lines.

Loviglio, of the Center City District, noted that there are on-site alternatives at the park’s second cafe at its north end. It serves the local Passero’s coffee, “giving consumers a choice on brands within the park,” she said. 

Passero’s is not unionized, and recently closed its longstanding Suburban Station location. (It also provides free coffee during pledge drives at WHYY, Billy Penn’s parent company.)

What would happen if the call to remove Starbucks from the City Hall apron was successful?

It’s possible some Brulee employees might lose their jobs, Schermerhorn acknowledged. Ultimately, the union would like to see the licensing agreement nixed, while workers would remain employed plying local coffee instead.   

“I’m sure if this were to go through the union would make every effort to support those workers wherever possible,” said Schermerhorn. The possibility of losing work is “not a fun aspect of organizing in any way,” they added. 

“But there’s not going to be any progress made without risks.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...