A pro-union sign is seen on a lamp post outside of Starbucks’ Broadway and Denny’s location in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on March 22, 2022.
Toby Scott | soup images | Light Rocket | fake images
Howard Schultz’s first week back at the helm of starbucks ended the unionization of another seven company-owned cafes, bringing the total tally to 16.
But would-be union members at Starbucks will likely have to brace for a tougher response from the company. Schultz, who oversaw the coffee giant’s growth from a small Seattle chain to a global behemoth, has a long history of opposing unions.
It’s still too early to tell if Schultz will adopt a new playbook for a time when workers feel emboldened by rising wages and a tight job market, but his recent actions and words may offer some clues.
On Monday he announced that the company suspend share repurchase invest in its stores and employees, but at a town hall with workers that same day, he reiterated his belief in the company’s team approach to labor management.
“I’m not an anti-union person. I’m pro-Starbucks, pro-partner, pro-Starbucks culture,” Schultz said. “We didn’t get here by having a union.”
Both organizers and labor experts expect the company, under Schultz’s leadership, to step up efforts to stifle the labor drive.
“I think they are likely to double down on their anti-union efforts and do everything they can,” said John Logan, a labor professor at San Francisco State University.
Starbucks, under former CEO Kevin Johnson, has already faced accusations of union busting by 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 staff in Phoenix. Starbucks has denied the claims.
Johnson publicly took a relatively hands-off approach, leaving most of the effort to North American President Rossann Williams. But when Buffalo, New York-area locations kicked off the union drive last year, it was Schultz, not Johnson, who visited to speak with baristas.
To date, more than 180 company-owned stores have filed petitions for a union election, though that’s still a small fraction of Starbucks’ total US footprint of nearly 9,000 stores. Of the places whose votes have been counted, only one café has opposed unionization.
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.
Steve Ferdman | fake images
Schultz’s anti-union stance dates back to his early days at the company. In his 1997 book, “Pour 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 union battle when he was chief marketing officer.
The growing company, which was led by CEO Jerry Baldwin at the time, bought Peet’s Coffee and Tea in 1984. Integrating the acquisition took effort as company cultures clashed, according to Schultz. He wrote that some Starbucks workers began to feel neglected and therefore circulated a union petition after their requests to management went unanswered. The union won the vote.
“The incident taught me an important lesson: There is no more precious asset than the trusting relationship a company has with its employees,” Schultz wrote. “If people believe that management isn’t sharing the rewards fairly, they will feel alienated. Once they start distrusting management, the future of the company will be compromised.”
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 “Pour Your Heart Into It,” Schultz said that one barista “just” successfully worked to decertify the Starbucks retail workers’ union.
“When so many of our people supported decertification, it was a sign to me that they were beginning to believe he would do what he promised,” he wrote. “His mistrust was beginning to dissipate and his morale was rising.”
But employees who worked for Starbucks at the time and union representatives at the time have objected to that narrative. In a 2019 Politico article Linked to Schultz’s political hopes, Dave Schmitz, the organizing director of the local United Food and Commercial Workers Union in the 1980s, said Starbucks filed the decertification petition.
At the time, Schultz did not respond to requests for comment on the Politico report.
On top of that, Schultz often painted the coffee chain’s benefits, such as health coverage for part-time workers, as his own idea as part of a broader belief that treating employees well will benefit the company. as a whole. According to the Politico report, those benefits were part of the union’s contract with Starbucks.
“I was convinced that under my leadership, the employees would realize that I would listen to their concerns. If they had faith in me and my motives, they would not need a union,” Schultz wrote.
Schultz would step down as CEO of the company in 2000 before returning for another term in 2008 when the financial crisis upended Starbucks business. While he was serving as head of global strategy in the interim, baristas in Manhattan tried to unionize. Starbucks successfully crushed the effort, but an NLRB judge ultimately ruled in 2008 that the company violated federal labor laws.
During his second term as CEO in 2016, Schultz allegedly called a California barista who circulated a union petition, successfully dissuading him from organizing his co-workers.
Two years later, Schultz stepped away from an active role at Starbucks. The following year, he publicly considered a presidential candidacy as an independent centrist, but his potential candidacy failed to generate enthusiasm.
While Schultz was away, Starbucks and its baristas suffered through a pandemic that changed the way many workers felt about their jobs and their own power. In August 2021, Starbucks workers in Buffalo petitioned to unionize with the NLRB under Workers United.
Now that Schultz is back in the spotlight, attitudes around unions have changed dramatically. Gallup polling from September 2021 shows that 68% of Americans approve of unions, the highest reading since a 71% approval rating in 1965.
Every union victory at a Starbucks coffeehouse creates more momentum for union drive and other high-profile victories at Amazon and REI have further fueled the movement.
“[Starbucks and Amazon] I think the old anti-union campaigns that have always worked in the past will also work this time, but I think in certain cases they are realizing that it is no longer true,” said Logan, the labor professor. I think any of these union campaigns would have been successful two or three years ago, but something has changed.”