BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Elmwood Avenue Starbucks customers who pre-paid for their coffee earlier this week walked away empty-handed. Instead, finding a picket line and a locked door.

Store workers are on strike and Starbucks’ online ordering system was turned on and accepting customer payments.

Michelle Eisen has worked at Starbucks for 12 years and was a key player in the organizing effort.

“And in turn, they were aggressive and hostile,” Eisen said. “And they were taking it out on the people who were standing out there with picket signs, because in their mind, you know, this was our fault. And it got really scary.”

“As the first unionized store in the country, we’ve faced continual abuse and retaliation from corporate since the moment we won, which was last December, that has escalated in the last week in the form of frivolous write-ups,” she added.

Elmwood Starbucks Workers United employees and others hit the picket line starting last Thursday.

Eisen believes the online ordering system being kept on for some of Sunday and Monday was a tactic to turn customers against the union.

“So there’s, in my opinion, there’s no way that this is not a deliberate act,” she said. “My suspicion is that they were turning them on just long enough to give us a backlog of orders. So that when we were starting our picketing, you know, there was a few dozen customers who had just placed orders who were now coming up and being upset.”

The longtime barista said she’d never felt scared on a picket line, until the mobile order situation.

A Starbucks spokesperson said that isn’t the case and that the system, which must be manually turned on and off, malfunctioned. The coffee giant is working to help affected customers.

“We’re not doing this because we want to be difficult, and we want to punish the community,” Eisen said. “We’re doing this because we deserve safe working conditions, and we deserve a living wage. And this is what we need to do in order to get that.”

The strike is ongoing and there’s no definitive date on when the baristas will be back behind the counter.

Customers who paid up and never received their drinks can contact Starbucks at 1-800-782-7282.

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Patrick Ryan is an award-winning reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2020. See more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.