Members Only | September 14, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Starbucks CEO can’t see the free publicity in labor organizing

Failed presidential candidate Howard Schultz could kill the union drives sweeping up his company’s stores, its brand or both. 


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The billionaire who built the Starbucks brand into one of the globe’s favorite recreational drug dealers returned in April as interim CEO of the company. He’s determined, it seems, to either kill the union drives sweeping up his company’s stores or his brand or both. 

The National Labor Relations Board has accused Schultz’s company of breaking federal labor laws with the carelessness and passion of a twice impeached president stealing nuclear secrets. 

And the caffeineglomerate was recently ordered by a federal judge to rehire seven employees of a Memphis Starbucks, who claim they were fired for union organizing. Starbucks Workers United claims that’s a tiny fraction of the more than 75 workers who’ve been sacked by the company for seeking the basic right of collective bargaining.

A tight job market with a beloved labor movement and a new generation of activated citizens make welcoming unionization the best advertising that Starbucks can’t buy.

We have no idea how much Starbucks is spending on union-busting compared to the millions being spent by Amazon. The company seems to be evading that reporting requirement

But no matter how much that amount is, the result has been filling garbage bins with stinky wads of cash and setting them aflame.

Until the 12th month of 2021, there were zero – zero! – unionized Starbucks stores.

There are now 209.

This floundering matches Schultz’s embarrassing attempt to run as an “independent” for president, which flared out after a couple of “Morning Joe”s and a few fat checks to the political consultants – the only people excited by the idea of Schultz in the White House.

While the pace of new unionized stores has held pretty steady – one every two days – Schultz has escalated his war on workers seeking collective bargaining by closing stores. The company says closures are coming for “safety” reasons. You’re probably not surprised at all to learn that union organizers disagree.

“Every decision Starbucks makes must be viewed through the lens of the company’s unprecedented and virulent union-busting campaign,” Workers United said in a statement.

Likewise, everything Schultz does must be seen through the lens of a man who may hate unions more than he loves his company. 

Because if you look at this historic union drive from almost any other perspective, you will see what could be the best thing to happen to the Starbucks’ brand this century.

Here’s why.

Labor is more beloved now than it’s been in half a century.

Organized labor hasn’t been this popular since Donald Trump got two of five deferments that kept him out of the Vietnam War. 

The labor movement has experienced an extraordinary upswing in popularity since the beginning of the Great Recession, when the Occupy Movement was birthed. This accelerated in the birther era, when Republicans embraced the rhetoric of (white) worker populism as they continued policies engineered for billionaires’ pleasure.

The overwhelming embrace of unions is pretty remarkable given the country’s polarization and unions’ close relationship with the Democrats. But it’s even more remarkable given that the last time unions were this popular the share of workers who were in a union, 28.4 percent, was almost triple what it is today, around 10.3 percent.

With public affection for unions, an organized workforce would give Starbucks a serious competitive advantage against other chains.

Schultz is well aware his customers like the idea of a company that treats its workers well – it was a cornerstone of Starbucks’ appeal as the company’s stores reached near ubiquity. But the thought of giving workers a voice that puts them on more equal footing with shareholders is apparently his worst nightmare.

The National Labor Relations Board is an independent agency that enforces the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees the right of nearly all private sector employees to organize. Of course, under Republican presidents they tend to do the exact opposite.

Since 2021, the Biden-appointed Democratic majority on the NLRB has been attempting to make the case that who the president is really, really, really, really, really, really, really important for workers.

“NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo is quite possibly the most pro-labor agency chief in its history,” according to Ryan Cooper of the American Prospect. She has “an agenda that would transform the American workplace.”

Schultz has decided to become the poster billionaire for union busting, stepping in the fray to take on labor directly right after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos stepped back and let someone else be the face of his company’s assault on organizing.

That means he has to be Public Enemy No. 1 of anyone who cares about workers’ rights. Gruesome tactics against Shultz’s employees will result in reputational loss for this man with a Venti ego. 

But that’s not all.

Continued losses at the NLRB may not have a huge financial cost for the company (because our labor laws aren’t strong enough), they could embolden workers in the more than 15,000 Starbucks stores not yet close to being organized while shattering Shultz’s legacy.

Unless he wants to go down in history as a clownish Dickensian villain who got schooled by one of America’s favorite movements. 

You have to forgive Baby Boomers for assuming that youthful values fade into reactionary retirement planning by time you buy a house.  That’s certainly what happened for many of them and their peers.

But the times actually do seem to be changing, possibly because America’s young people have never been so diverse, connected and in love with labor organizing. They are helping power the organizing surge, according to the dean of labor journalism, Steven Greenhouse.

“Inspired in many instances by Sen. Bernie Sanders’s calls for economic justice and by the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo and environmental movements, today’s young workers are more enthusiastic about unions than those who grew up during Ronald Reagan’s 1980s,” he wrote.

And young organizers include many TikTok and meme masters who have 50-plus years of coffee consumption ahead of them.

A tight job market with a beloved labor movement and a new generation of activated citizens who may actually be interested in living out their values make welcoming unionization the best advertising that Starbucks can’t buy.

Or Schultz can just keep on losing and hope right-wingers get back into power before it’s too late. Given his spectacular lack of political instincts, you can probably guess which path he’ll take.

Jason Sattler, better known as LOLGOP on Twitter, is writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was a columnist and member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors from 2017-2021.

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