Howard Schultz, ex-CEO of Starbucks, stepped down as CEO in June 2018. This was just weeks before his retirement. issued a farewell address with a few words of wisdom for the company he’d leave behind. In it, he encouraged Starbucks workers of all stripes to “never embrace the status quo,” advising them to approach the world with a sense of “empathy” and “kindness.” But in recent months, as dozens of Starbucks employees organize a first-of-its-kind union drive — an effort that would ostensibly upend the company’s status quo — critics argue that Starbucks has plainly jettisoned its ethos of empathy and kindness to stamp out the burgeoning workers’ movement.
The organizing effort began in August when three Buffalo-based stores filed petitions to be represented by a union. The New York Times. Citing difficult hours, insufficient sick days, and chaotic working conditions — all of which were reportedly exacerbated during the pandemic — it didn’t take long before workers established a partnership with Workers United Upstate New York, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Gary Bonadonna Jr. is the International Vice President of Workers United Upstate New York. Salon that the pandemic “showed [workers] that they cannot simply rely on management to look out for their health and safety or financial well-being.”
“This generation of workers understands that unions are the one vehicle that puts workers on an even playing field with management,” he said over email. “They know that previous generations organized unions to build the middle class, and they are determined to stand up for their right to organize a union.”
In late October, after three months of organizing, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruledThe union votes could be held at three different locations in Buffalo. The development marked a decisive blow for Starbucks because the company had previously asked the agency to hold a single vote pooling together twenty stores in the area — a maneuver critics saw as a bid to delay the election or dilute the electoral strength of pro-union employees.
Starbucks appears to have lost the battle with NLRB for now. But its conflict with employees — who are set to cast an official vote on unionizing by December 8 — rages on. According to reports, the union effort has been reportedly successful. expanded westward to Arizona.
The company has been visiting Buffalo-area stores with officials from out-of town and out-ofstate over the past few months. According to Buffalo employees, the Times that the maneuver is “part of a counteroffensive by the company intended to intimidate workers, disrupt normal operations and undermine support for the union.”
Casey Moore, a Buffalo Starbucks barista who is part of the union organizing committee, confirmed the presence of high-ranking executives like Rossann Williams, Allison Peck (Regional vice president), and John Culver (“Chief Operation Officer”) in stores unannounced to speak with employees about the apparent ills that unionization has caused.
In one instance, Moore said, Culver came into her store and introduced himself without revealing his full name and position, telling her that he’s a “partner” (a company term used to denote “worker”). Moore found out that he was actually the COO of the entire business after a quick Google Search.
“It’s just been completely [over the top],” Moore said in an interview. “The day after we sent a letter to [Starbucks CEO] Kevin Johnson telling him that we’re forming an organizing committee and that our goal is to form a union, they sent in people like Rossann Williams, their support managers at all of our stores, [and] they’ve been hosting weekly or bi-weekly anti-union meetings.”
She added: “Just seeing that has made me even more determined to unionize at this point because … they’re not living up to their mission and values.”
Wilma B. Liebman, a former chairwoman of the NLRB during the Obama era, told Salon that the abrupt presence of outside officials in stores could seriously undercut what labor law considers “laboratory conditions” – a union election environment that ensures workers have the freedom of choice.
Of the officials, Liebman said in an interview: “That was not even close to me, legally … It’s hard for me to think that [employees] would not be coerced.”
According to the Times workers also claim that the company has filled certain Buffalo locations with new and unneeded employees. This could have a negative impact on the organization efforts.
Alexis Rizzo, a long-standing employee of Starbucks in Buffalo, stated to the outlet that she feels outnumbered by the sudden influx. “It’s intimidating,” she said. “You go to work and it’s just you and 10 people you don’t know.”
Nevertheless, there is no consensus among employees.
Salon heard from a shift manager who worked for the company for many years and said that their experience was very different from what organizers had described.
“I’ve been in contact with probably hundreds of different restaurants, shift managers and store managers. I’ve come in contact with a lot of people from corporate. And everyone that I’ve met is just genuinely kind. They genuinely care about other people,” they said anonymously in an interview arranged by a company spokesperson.
Asked about the presence of company officials in Buffalo stores, they added that it’s a “lose-lose situation” for the company: “They don’t come out, they don’t care about the people.”
Recently, the company ordered a rash in store closings in Buffalo. This gave employees the opportunity to attend a Schultz speaking engagement. Schultz, a multibillionaire, was able to accommodate employees. raked inNearly $10 million was spent during the Great Recession when thousands of people were being employed laid off.
Speaking to a large crowd of baristas, who on average make under $25,000 a year, Schultz acknowledged that Starbucks is “not a perfect company.” Schultz made no explicit mention of the union drive but vaguely alluded to workplace issues at certain stores in the Buffalo area.
“Mistakes are made,” he told the crowd. “We learn from them, and we try and fix them.”
Schultz, a Jew, shared a story about prisoners who lived in concentration camps during WWII. He said that many of them had to share blankets for sleep.
“Not everyone, but most people shared their blanket with five other people,” Schultz said. “So much of that story is threaded into what we’ve tried to do at Starbucks — is share our blanket.”
Moore, who attended the event, said she found the analogy “incredibly inappropriate.”
“It was just a very bizarre thing for them to think that having [Schultz] there would convince people to vote ‘no,’” Moore added. “I think it just goes to show how out of touch they are right now.”
While the exact purpose of Shultz’s appearance in Buffalo was ill-defined, the company has for the most part made their position on a Starbucks union very clear.
In internal letter shared to employees, Rossann Williams, President of Retail for North America, openly instructed “partners to vote ‘no’ to a union – not because we’re opposed to unions but because we believe we will best enhance our partnership and advance the operational changes together in a direct relationship.”
A company spokesperson echoed Williams’ sentiment with Salon, saying over the phone that a “union would interrupt and jeopardize” management’s relationship “with hourly customer-facing partners.”
Pressed on why, the spokesperson explained: “I think it’s just in the way that humans operate. It’s fundamentally bringing a third party into the relationship, preventing partners from bringing their concerns and ideas directly to their store managers and others.”
While the company has downplayed the value of unionization, it already appears to be taking heed of their organizers’ demands. Starbucks reacted to the demands of the organizers in October, shortly after the movement had gained significant momentum. suddenlyThey pledged to raise starting wages to $15 an hour, upgrade equipment and expand recruitment and training programs.
Starbucks’ union drive comes amid much a broader national labor movement spanning multiple industries across the country. Last month, in a strike wave known as “Striketober,” tens of thousands of workers at companies like John Deere, Frito-Lay, Nabisco, Kellogg, and McDonald’s organized work stoppages over unethical working conditions and low pay.
According to Cornell’s Labor Action Tracker, the share of workers on strike last month jumped to 25,000 — a marked departure from the three months prior, which saw an average of 10,000. Salon was told by many labor advocates and experts that strikes are largely driven by growing dissatisfaction among essential workers, as the pandemic decreases.
Corrina A. Christensen, Director of Public Relations & Communications of the BCTGM International Union, which represents workers at Frito-Lay, Kellogg, and Nabisco, said that the strikes have “everything to do with workers being fed up with employers bent on disrespecting their work and demanding take-aways in wages, benefits, forcing overtime…after they were upheld as ‘essential.’”
Given the current U.S. labor market, where workers feel more empowered than ever, a win by Starbucks could encourage employees across all service industries to mount campaigns of its own, Bonadonna Jr. explained. Salon.
“A union victory at one store would have historic significance,” he wrote. “American workers would see that despite the power and wealth amassed by billionaires, ordinary working people can gain dignity and respect on the job by banding together.”