On March 22, 2022, a pro-union poster is seen on a lamppost outside Starbucks’ Broadway and Denny locations in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
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The Starbucks-led Howard Schultz’s first week ended with the merger of seven more company-owned cafes, bringing the total to 16.
But Starbucks union members are likely to have to resort to harsh treatment from the company. Schultz, who oversaw the rise of the coffee giant from a small Seattle chain to a global behemoth, has a long history of opposition unions.
It is too early to say whether Schultz will adopt a new playbook for a time when workers feel encouraged by rising wages and a tight labor market, but his recent actions and words may give some clues.
On Monday he announced that the company would suspend stock buybacks for investing in its stores and employees, yet at a town hall with employees on the 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 a union here.”
Both organizers and labor experts hope that the organization, led by Schultz, will step up its efforts to alleviate labor pressures.
John Logan, a labor professor at San Francisco State University, said, “I think they will probably redouble their anti-union efforts and do everything possible.”
Starbucks, under former CEO Kevin Johnson, has already faced union-breaking allegations from Workers United, which has filed dozens of complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. NLRB has also accused the company of seeking revenge against pro-union workers in Phoenix. Starbucks has denied the claim.
Johnson publicly took a comparatively hand-off approach, leaving most of the effort to North American President Rosen Williams. But when Buffalo, New York-area locations began pushing the union last year, it was Schultz, not Johnson, who went to talk to the barristers.
To date, more than 180 company-owned locations have filed petitions for a union election, although this is still a small fraction of Starbucks’ overall U.S. footprint in about 9,000 stores. Of the places where votes were counted, only one cafe opposed the union.
Former Starbucks Chairman and CEO and United States 2020 Presidential Candidate Howard Schultz visited Fox & Friends at the Fox News Channel Studio in New York City on April 2, 2019.
Steven Firdman | Getty Images
Schultz’s position against the Union expanded in his early days at the company. Schultz, co-author of Dory Jones Young in his 1997 book, Pur Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time, described the company’s first union war when he was marketing director.
The growing company, led by then-CEO Jerry Baldwin, bought Pitts coffee and tea in 1984. According to Schultz, the acquisition was due to a clash of company cultures. He writes that some Starbucks employees start to feel neglected and so they promote a union petition when their request to management is not answered. The union won the vote.
“The incident taught me an important lesson: there is no more valuable product than a relationship of trust and confidence with a company’s employees,” Schultz wrote. “If people believe that management is not distributing rewards fairly, they will feel isolated. Once they start distrusting management, the future of the company is compromised.”
Schultz left Starbucks soon after finding his own espresso chain, Il Jr., and its initial success led him to acquire Starbucks and merge the two companies. In “All Your Heart Into It”, Schultz says that a barista “from himself” has successfully worked to cancel the union for Starbucks retail workers.
“While many of us supported disarmament, it was a sign to me that they were beginning to believe that I would do what I promised,” he wrote. “Their distrust is starting to subside and their morale is rising.”
But Starbucks workers at the time, and union representatives at the time, backed away from that description. In a 2019 Politico article tied to Schultz’s political aspirations, Dave Schmidt, organizing director of the local United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union in the 1980s, said Starbucks had filed a disarmament petition.
At the time, Schultz did not respond to a request for comment on the Politico report.
After all, Schultz often drew on the benefits of the coffee chain, such as health coverage for part-time employees, as part of his broader belief that treating employees well would benefit the company as a whole. According to the Politico report, these benefits were part of the union’s agreement with Starbucks.
“I was confident that under my leadership, the staff would understand that I would listen to their concerns. If they believed in me and my motives, they would not need a union,” Schultz wrote.
Schultz stepped down as CEO of the company in 2000 and returned in 2008 because the financial crisis had damaged Starbucks’ business. In the meantime, while he was the chief global strategist, Manhattan’s barristers were trying to unite. Starbucks successfully thwarted this attempt, but an NLRB judge finally ruled in 2008 that the company had violated federal labor laws.
During his second term as chief executive in 2016, Schultz phoned a California barista who had campaigned for a union petition, telling him about successfully organizing his colleagues.
Two years later, Schultz moved away from an active role at Starbucks. The following year, he publicly considered running for president as an independent centralist, but his potential candidacy failed to generate enthusiasm.
The epidemic has changed things
While Schultz was away, Starbucks and its barristers suffered an epidemic that changed how many workers felt about their jobs and their own abilities. In August 2021, Starbucks workers in Buffalo filed a petition to unite with the NLRB under Workers United.
Now that Schultz is back in the spotlight, attitudes around the unions have changed dramatically. Gallup polls from September 2021 show that 68% of Americans approve trade unions – the highest reading since the approval rating of 71% in 1965.
Each union win at Starbucks Caf speeds up the union push, and other high-profile wins on Amazon and REI have further fueled the movement.
“[Starbucks and Amazon] It seems like the old anti-union campaigns that always worked in the past will work again, but I think they are finding out in some cases that this is no longer true, “said Labor Professor Logan.” I don’t. I think any campaign of this union would have been successful two or three years ago, but something has changed. “