From the time he bought Starbucks in 1987 until he stepped down as chairman in 2018, Howard Schultz has consistently — and successfully — fought attempts to unionize Starbucks stores and roasting plants in the states. -United.
But Schultz — who was recently named interim chief executive of Starbucks — has never faced such a large and rapidly growing labor movement as the current one. Six US Starbucks stores have voted to unionize since December, and at least 140 others in 27 states have filed petitions for union elections.
It’s unclear how Schultz will approach the issue when he returns to the company in April.
“He took the fact that his workers wanted to be part of a union very personally, because he believed that with him they wouldn’t need it,” said Pam Blauman-Schmitz, a retired union representative who worked to organize the first Starbucks stores. in the early 1980s. “He said things like, ‘Maybe you need unions in the coal mines, but not in the Starbucks stores.'”
Starbucks announced on March 16 that its CEO of five years, Kevin Johnson, was retiring. The company has tapped Schultz to serve as interim CEO until it finds a permanent replacement by this fall. Schultz, 68, who has held the honorary title of chairman emeritus since 2018, also joins the company’s board.
It is not yet clear if Schultz will try to step up the fight against unionization. But Timothy Hubbard, an assistant professor of management at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, said he was in a good position to do so.
“My feeling is if they want to shut down the unions, that’s the best course of action,” Hubbard said. “Schultz has what it takes to tackle a tough subject like unions.”
Schultz did not respond to attempts to contact him through his website or his family’s foundation.
In a November letter to employees, released just before the first unionization votes at three stores in Buffalo, New York, Schultz said he had tried to create the kind of company his working-class father had never had his way. the chance to work.
He recalled the ‘traumatic time’ when his family had no income after his father suffered a work accident, and said that’s why Starbucks offered benefits such as health care, tuition free, parental leave and stock grants for employees.
“No partner has ever needed a representative to seek out things that we all have as partners at Starbucks. And I’m saddened and worried to hear anyone think it’s necessary now,” Schultz wrote.
But for many union organizers, who complain of inconsistent schedules, poor training, understaffing and low pay, Shultz’s words fell flat.
“A lot of people felt like they were being lectured by a disappointed dad because they weren’t grateful,” said Jaz Brisack, a Starbucks barista and union organizer who heard Schultz speak at a forum. employees in Buffalo last fall.
Others say they saw Schultz’s outright anger at the unions.
Blauman-Schmitz said as soon as Schultz bought Starbucks in 1987, he reneged on a labor agreement the company had with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represented six Seattle-area stores and a roasting plant. . Schultz wanted a new contract with weaker benefits and job protections, said Blauman-Schmitz, who has since retired from the union.
One day, she says, Schultz spotted her handing out flyers in the roastery and rushed over to her, screaming and flushed in the face.
Anne Belov worked part-time at the roasting plant and sat on the union bargaining committee. She had always received rave performance reviews, but after Schultz took over, she was suddenly being scolded constantly. Belov left the company in 1988.
“You could see the writing on the wall. As the company grew, it was no longer going to be possible to act on the good faith of the people who controlled all the power,” she said.
Schultz quickly swept the union away. In his 1997 book, “For Your Heart Into It,” he recalled how a barista who opposed the union launched a campaign to decertify him. In 1992, the union no longer represented the stores or the roasting plant. Schultz saw this as a sign that the workers trusted him.
“If they trusted me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union,” he wrote.
Still, efforts to unionize Starbucks did not go away, and the company continued to fight them. Starbucks had to reinstate laid off workers or pay to settle labor law violations several times in the early 2000s.
Last year, the NLRB discovered that Starbucks had unlawfully retaliated against two Philadelphia baristas who were trying to unionize. The NLRB said Starbucks monitored employees’ social media, illegally eavesdropped on their conversations, and eventually fired them. He ordered Starbucks to stop interfering with workers’ right to organize and to offer reinstatement of the two workers.
Most recently, on March 15, the NLRB filed a lawsuit against Starbucks alleging that district and store managers in Phoenix spied on and threatened workers who supported unionization. The complaint says Starbucks suspended one union supporter and fired another.
Starbucks did not make anyone available for comment.
In a letter to employees in December, Starbucks North America President Rossann Williams said the company would follow due process and negotiate in good faith. But the company insists its stores work best when they work directly with employees.
The outcome of the current organizing effort is unclear. The number of stores that have called for union elections is still only a fraction of the 9,000 stores owned by Starbucks in the United States. And Starbucks has the resources to keep fighting, with annual revenue of $29 billion last year.
But Brisack said this organizing effort is also stronger than previous ones, which have been thwarted by high worker turnover and strapped unions. Organizers now have the backing of Workers United – an arm of the Service Employees International Union with 2 million members – and a union-friendly president in the White House. Brisack said the pandemic has also fueled worker outrage.
The climate is also changing. Dan Cornfield, labor expert and professor of sociology at Vanderbilt, said US polls show growing public support for unions since the Great Recession. That’s a big difference from the 1980s, when Starbucks first fought unions.
“By taking a Reagan-era union-busting stance, they’re actually potentially endangering their clientele,” Cornfield said.