Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has a history of opposing unions


A pro-union poster is seen on a lamp post outside the Starbucks Broadway and Denny location in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on March 22, 2022.

Toby Scott | Sopa Pictures | Light flare | Getty Images

Howard Schultz’s first week back at Starbucks ended with the unionization of seven more company-owned coffee shops, bringing the total to 16.

But future union members at Starbucks will likely have to prepare for a tougher response from the company. Schultz, who oversaw the coffee giant’s growth from a small Seattle chain to a global giant, has a long history of opposing unions.

It’s still too early to tell whether Schultz will embrace a new playbook at a time when workers feel emboldened by rising wages and a tight labor market, but his recent actions and words could offer some clues.

On Monday, he announced the company would suspend share buybacks to invest in its stores and employees, but at a town hall with workers the same day, he repeated his belief in the company’s team approach. business management.

“I’m not an anti-union person. I’m pro-Starbucks, pro-partner, pro-Starbucks culture,” Schultz said. “We didn’t come here having a union.”

Organizers and labor experts expect the company under Schultz’s leadership to step up efforts to stifle the labor surge.

“I think they’re likely to double down on the unions and do whatever they can,” said John Logan, a labor professor at San Francisco State University.

Starbucks, under former CEO Kevin Johnson, has already faced anti-union charges from Workers United, which has filed dozens of complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB also accused the company of retaliating against pro-union Phoenix staff. Starbucks has denied the allegations.

Johnson publicly took a relatively hands-off approach, leaving most of the effort to North American President Rossann Williams. But when the Buffalo, New York-area locations kicked off the union campaign last year, it was Schultz, not Johnson, who showed up to talk to the baristas.

To date, more than 180 company-owned locations have filed petitions for a union election, though that’s still only a small fraction of Starbucks’ overall footprint in the United States, which is nearly 9. 000 stores. Of the localities whose votes were counted, only one cafe opposed unionization.

Schultz’s union opposition

Former Starbucks Chairman and CEO and 2020 United States Presidential candidate Howard Schultz visits Fox & Friends at Fox News Channel Studios on April 2, 2019 in New York City.

Steven Ferman | Getty Images

Schultz’s stance against unions dates back to his early days in the business. In his 1997 book, “For Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time,” co-authored with Dori Jones Yang, Schultz recounted the company’s first labor battle when he was chief marketing officer. .

The growing company, led at the time by CEO Jerry Baldwin, bought Peet’s Coffee and Tea in 1984. Integrating the acquisition took effort as the company’s cultures clashed, according to Schultz. He wrote that some Starbucks workers were beginning to feel neglected and so they circulated a union petition after their demands of management went unanswered. The union won the vote.

“The incident taught me an important lesson: there is no greater asset than the relationship of trust a company has with its employees,” Schultz wrote. “If people believe that management does not share the rewards fairly, they will feel alienated. Once they begin to distrust management, the future of the company is in jeopardy.”

Schultz left Starbucks soon after to found his own espresso chain, Il Giornale, and his early success led him to acquire Starbucks and merge the two companies. In “For Your Heart Into It,” Schultz said a “lonely” barista managed to decertify Starbucks retail workers’ union.

“When so many of our people supported decertification, it was a sign to me that they were beginning to believe that I would do what I promised,” he wrote. “Their distrust was beginning to dissipate and their morale was rising.”

But employees who worked for Starbucks at the time and union representatives at the time pushed back against that account. In a Politico 2019 article Linked to Schultz’s political hopes, Dave Schmitz, organizing director of the local United Food and Commercial Workers Union in the 1980s, said Starbucks filed the petition for decertification.

At the time, Schultz did not respond to requests for comment on the Politico report.

On top of that, Schultz has often described coffee chain perks, like health coverage for part-time workers, as his own idea as part of a larger belief that treating employees well will benefit the company. company as a whole. According to information from Politico, these benefits were part of the union’s contract with Starbucks.

“I was confident that under my leadership, employees would realize that I would listen to their concerns. If they trusted me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union,” Schultz wrote.

Schultz would step down as the company’s CEO in 2000 before returning for another term in 2008 as the financial crisis disrupted Starbucks’ business. While he served as acting chief global strategist, Manhattan baristas attempted to unionize. Starbucks was able to crush the effort, but an NLRB judge eventually ruled in 2008 that the company violated federal labor laws.

During his second term as CEO in 2016, Schultz would have been called a Californian barista who circulated a union petition, successfully dissuading him from unionizing his colleagues.

Two years later, Schultz retired from an active role at Starbucks. The following year, he was publicly considering a presidential run as an independent centrist, but his potential candidacy did not generate enthusiasm.

The pandemic has changed things

While Schultz was away, Starbucks and its baristas endured a pandemic that changed many workers’ perceptions of their jobs and their own power. In August 2021, Starbucks workers in Buffalo filed a petition to unionize with the NLRB under Workers United.

Now that Schultz is back in the spotlight, attitudes towards unions have changed dramatically. A September 2021 Gallup poll shows 68% of Americans approve of unions – the highest reading since a 71% approval rating in 1965.

Every union victory at a Starbucks cafe gives more momentum to the union push, and other high-profile victories at Amazon and REI further fueled the movement.

“[Starbucks and Amazon] think the old anti-union campaigns that always worked in the past will also work this time around, but I think they’re finding out in some cases that’s not true anymore,” said Logan, the work professor. I think either of these union campaigns would have succeeded two or three years ago, but something has changed.”


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