Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says he’s not anti-union, but his past tells a different story

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A pro-union poster is seen on a lamp pole outside Starbucks’ Broadway and Denny location in Seattle’s Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on March 22, 2022.
Toby Scott | Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

Howard Schultz’s first week back at the helm of Starbucks ended with seven more company-owned cafes unionizing, bringing the total tally to 16.

But would-be union members at Starbucks will likely need to gird for a tougher response from the company. Schultz, who oversaw the coffee giant’s growth from a small Seattle chain into a global behemoth, has a long history of opposing unions.

It’s still too soon to tell whether Schultz will adopt a new playbook for 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 that the company would suspend stock buybacks to invest in its stores and employees, yet in a town hall with workers that same day, he repeated his belief in the company team approach to labor management.

“I’m not an anti-union person. I am 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 will ramp up efforts to quash the labor push.

“I think they’re likely to double down on their anti-union efforts and do everything they possibly can,” said John Logan, a labor professor at San Francisco State University.

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

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

To date, more than 180 company-owned locations have filed petitions for a union election, although that is still a small fraction of Starbucks’ overall U.S. footprint of nearly 9,000 stores. Out of the locations whose votes have been counted, only one cafe has opposed unionizing.

Schultz’s union opposition

Former chairman and CEO of Starbucks, and United States 2020 presidential candidate Howard Schultz visits Fox & Friends at Fox News Channel Studios on April 2, 2019 in New York City.
Steven Ferdman | Getty Images

Schultz’s stance against unions stretches back to his earliest 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 a marketing director.

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 the company cultures clashed, according to Schultz. He wrote that some Starbucks workers began to feel neglected and so they 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 commodity than the relationship of trust and confidence a company has with its employees,” Schultz wrote. “If people believe management is not fairly sharing the rewards, they will feel alienated. Once they start distrusting management, the company’s future is compromised.”

Schultz left Starbucks soon after to found his own espresso chain, Il Giornale, and its early success led him to acquire Starbucks and merge the two companies. In “Pour Your Heart Into It,” Schultz said that a barista “on his own” successfully worked to decertify the union for Starbucks retail workers.

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

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

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

On top of that, Schultz often painted the coffee chain’s benefits, like 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 Politico’s reporting, those benefits were part of the union’s contract with Starbucks.

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

Schultz would step down as CEO of the company in 2000 before returning for another stint in 2008 as the financial crisis upended Starbucks’ business. While he served as chief global strategist in the interim, baristas in Manhattan tried to unionize. Starbucks successfully squashed the effort, but an NLRB judge ultimately ruled in 2008 that the company violated federal labor laws.

During his second stint as chief executive in 2016, Schultz reportedly called a California barista who circulated a union petition, successfully talking him out of organizing his fellow workers.

Two years later, Schultz stepped away from an active role in Starbucks. The following year, he publicly considered a presidential run as an independent centrist, but his potential candidacy failed to create enthusiasm.

The pandemic changed things

While Schultz was away, Starbucks and its baristas endured a pandemic that changed how many workers felt about 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 as Schultz steps back into the spotlight, attitudes around unions have changed drastically. Gallup polling from September 2021 shows 68% of Americans approve of labor unions — the highest reading since a 71% approval rating in 1965.

Every union win at a Starbucks cafe drives more momentum for the union push, and other high-profile wins at Amazon and R.E.I. have further fueled the movement.

“[Starbucks and Amazon] think the old anti-union campaigns that have always worked in the past will also work this time, but I think they’re finding out in certain cases that it’s no longer true,” said Logan, the labor professor. “I don’t think either of these union campaigns would’ve succeeded two or three years ago, but something has changed.”

Sophie Tremblay

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