From the time he bought Starbucks in 1987 to the time he stepped down as chairman in 2018, Howard Schultz has continually – and successfully fought – attempts to unite American Starbucks stores and roasters.
But Schultz – who was recently appointed interim CEO of Starbucks – has never faced a union movement as large and rapidly growing as the current one. Six US Starbucks stores have voted to join a union since December, and at least 140 others in 27 states have petitioned for union elections.
It’s unclear how Schultz will deal with the problem when he returns to the company in April.
said Pam Plowman Schmitz, a retired union representative who worked to organize the first Starbucks stores in the early 1980s. He was saying things like, ‘Maybe you need unions in the coal mines, but not in the Starbucks. “
Starbucks announced on March 16 that Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson has retired for five years. The company has selected Schultz to serve as interim CEO Until you find a permanent replacement by this fall. Schultz, 68, who has held the honorary title as honorary chairman since 2018, also returned to the company’s board of directors.
It is not yet clear if Schultz will attempt to escalate the fight against the unions. But Timothy Hubbard, associate professor of management at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza School of Business, said he is well positioned to do so.
“I feel if they want to close unions, that’s the best course of action,” Hubbard said. “Schultz has what it takes to deal with a difficult subject like unions.”
Schultz did not respond to attempts to contact him via his website or his family institution.
In a letter to employees in November, posted before the first union vote at three stores in Buffalo, New York, Schultz said he tried to create the kind of company his blue-collar father never had the opportunity to work for.
He remembers the “painful moment” his family had no income after his father had a workplace injury, and he said that’s why Starbucks enjoys benefits like health care, free college education, parental leave, and employee stock grants.
“No partner has ever needed a representative to go after the things we all have as partners at Starbucks. I am saddened and concerned to hear of anyone who thinks there is a need now,” Schultz wrote.
But for many union organizers, who complained of irregular working hours, poor training, staff shortages and low wages, Schultz’s words fell flat.
“A lot of people felt like they were being lectured by a frustrated father because they weren’t grateful,” said Jazz Brisack, a Starbucks barista and entrepreneur who heard Schultz speak at a staff forum in Buffalo last fall.
Others say they saw outright anger from Schultz about unions.
Once Schultz bought Starbucks in 1987, Plowmann Schmitz said, he reneged on the business agreement that had been reached between the company and the United Food and Trade Workers Union, which represents six Seattle-area stores and a roasting plant. Plowmann Schmitz, who has since retired from the union, said Schultz wanted a new contract with weaker job benefits and protections.
She said Schultz spotted her one day handing out pamphlets at the roasting plant and ran towards her screaming and blushing.
Anne Belov was working part-time in a roasting plant and sat on the union negotiating committee. I’ve always gotten glowing performance reviews, but after Schultz took over, I was suddenly constantly scolded. Belov left the company in 1988.
“You can see the writing on the wall. As the company has grown, it has not been possible to continue to act in good faith for the people who hold all the power,” she said.
Soon Schultz swept the Union. In his 1997 book, Pour Your Heart Into It, he recalls how a barista who opposed the union began a campaign to have his certification revoked. By 1992, Union no longer represented the stores or the roasting plant. Schultz saw this as a sign of the workers’ trust in him.
“If they believed in me and with motives, they would not need a union,” he wrote.
However, efforts to standardize Starbucks did not disappear, and the company continued to fight it. Starbucks had to reinstate laid-off workers or pay to settle labor law violations several times in the early 2000s.
Last year, the NLRB found that Starbucks illegally retaliated against two Philadelphia baristas who were trying to join a syndicate. The NLRB said Starbucks monitored the social media of employees, illegally spying on their conversations and eventually fired them. Starbucks was ordered to stop interfering with workers’ right to organize and to offer to reinstate workers.
Most recently, on March 15, the NLRB issued a complaint against Starbucks alleging that neighborhood and store managers in Phoenix spied and threatened workers who support unions. The complaint says Starbucks suspended one union supporter and fired another.
Starbucks did not allow anyone to comment.
In a letter to employees in December, Starbucks North America President Rossan Williams said the company would respect due process and negotiate in good faith. But the company insists its stores perform best when it works directly with employees.
The outcome of current union efforts is unclear. The number of stores that have petitioned for union elections is still a fraction of the company’s 9,000 Starbucks-owned stores in the United States, and Starbucks has the resources to keep fighting, with annual revenue of $29 billion last year.
But Brissack said this union effort is also stronger than previous efforts, which have been frustrated by high worker turnover and unions lacking resources. Organizers now have the support of United Workers – an arm of the Service Employees International’s two million members – and a friendly president of the union in the White House. Bressac said the pandemic has angered workers.
Climate is also changing. Dan Kornfield, a labor expert and professor of sociology at Vanderbilt, said polls in the United States show growing popular support for unions since the Great Recession. That’s a big difference from the ’80s, when Starbucks first fought off unions.
“By taking an anti-union stance from the Reagan era, they are likely to put their client base at risk,” Kornfield said.
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