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Students protest Kenan-Flagler event hosting Starbucks leaders

Starbucks Board of Directors member and former Domino's CEO Ritch Allison speaks with Kenan-Flagler dean Mary Margaret Frank at the Carolina Inn on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023.

On Oct. 12, around twenty students organized outside the Carolina Inn with signs, drums and megaphones. Chants of, “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” could be heard from a block away.

The rally was protesting the attendance of Ritch Allison, who sits on Starbucks' Board of Directors, and the Vice President of partner resources at Starbucks Candace Burnett at business discussions hosted by Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, a private think tank and a partner of the Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Protestors voiced concerns that the school and the University were hosting leaders of Starbucks despite the company having a history of labor law violations.

UNC junior Laura Saavedra Forero protests with Starbucks Workers United outside of the Carolina Inn on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023.

“Starbucks refuses to bargain in good faith, they fire workers indiscriminately, they take away healthcare benefits,” Toby Posel, a protestor, said. “They do all kinds of horrible union-busting tactics.” 

Hosted by Sunrise Durham, Campus Y, UNC Young Democratic Socialists of America and NC Triangle Democratic Socialists of America, the rally occurred while the Kenan Institute sponsored a "Fireside Chat" — mediated by the Dean of Kenan-Flagler Mary Margaret Frank — which Allison participated in. The chat was part of the two-day Frontiers of Business Conference, which had Burnett listed as a panelist on a different discussion earlier in the day.

Some students, like Posel, said the Starbucks representatives present held responsibility for some of the most "flagrant" labor law violations protestors were demonstrating against.

In September, a National Labor Relations Board decided that Starbucks Corp. broke federal law by increasing wages and benefits for workers only in non-unionized stores. In response, student activists across the country have pushed university administrators across the country to end relationships with Starbucks.

UNC junior Haya Odeh protests with Starbucks Workers United outside the Carolina Inn on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023.

Haya Odeh, another UNC student protester, is a former Starbucks barista who used to work in Wilmington. Odeh said she helped unionize the location, but after unionizing, her manager said her employment would not be eligible for transfer to another location.

“I believe that I was blacklisted and retaliated against,” Odeh said. “I’m fighting for my reinstatement.”

Healthcare worker Earl Bradley was also present at the protest as a representative of the Union of Southern Service Workers, an organization working to specifically organize low-wage workers in the South.

“How would the corporations work without us? We are the ones that make up the corporations with their money,” Bradley said. 

While demonstrators remained outside the Carolina Inn, inside, participants of the "Fireside Chat" with Allison discussed the development of AI and strategies for running a successful business.

Business students Will Staats and Devan Patel who both attended the discussion said they had no knowledge of the goal behind the protest.

Professor of Business and Associate Dean of the Doctoral program at Kenan-Flagler Paige Ouimet is also the executive director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. In response to the protest, Ouimet said employees now have more power over employers than ever before. This, she said, allows employees to have agency over what they want from their employers.

“We’ve hosted a conference, we've brought in people to speak,” Ouimet said. “I don’t think we’re taking a stand on any of these [issues] directly.”

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