Howard Schultz should be in favor of Starbucks workers organizing

Last week, Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post penned an excellent exposé on Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and his efforts to stop the recent wave of unionization at his franchise. (You can read the piece HERE.)

The Starbucks unionizing campaign began in Buffalo in August 2021 and has since spread to more than 225 Starbucks cafés across the country. Like thousands of other workers in the service industry, Starbucks employees had become burnt out over the course of the pandemic and, as a result, decided to join forces to bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions.

Over the years, Schultz has prided himself in creating a “good” company that looks out for its workers and shares success with them. But his program falls short when it comes to workers who are involved with unions. Under Schultz’s leadership, Starbucks has been accused by the National Labor Relations Board of waging a brutal, oftentimes illegal anti-union campaign. The company fired more than 120 workers involved with organizing efforts, failed to extend raises to employees at stores that were unionized or in the process of unionizing, and threatened workers in attempts to discourage them from voting to join unions.

I genuinely believe that Schultz cares about his workers and wants to do right by them, but his vicious attacks on unions are foolish and misguided. If Schultz really wants to, as he says, “[build] this company the right way,” then he should instead be doing everything in his power to clear the path for his workers to organize.

Schultz has cast union workers as outsiders and adversaries, influenced by power-hungry labor leaders that are hellbent on infiltrating his franchise and destroying it from within. But if Schultz listened to those workers a bit, he would quickly understand how wrong he is. Workers involved with union efforts are real people with genuine grievances, not sinister, ulterior motives. They share the same self-proclaimed goals as Schultz in that they want the company to turn a profit while also doing right by its workers, customers, and communities.

Once Schultz recognizes that unionizing employees are his friends, he will be in a better place to appreciate that unions are the best avenue for him, logistically speaking, to achieve his goal in caring for them.

Over the past few months, Schultz toured the country and held “listening sessions” at over 200 different Starbucks locations. In these sessions, he listened to thousands of baristas, shift supervisors, and store managers (but not including any of the people who are involved with the organizing) share their troubles from the pandemic and their frustrations over things like understaffing, reduced hours and pay, and broken equipment. He has since incorporated the workers’ feedback and made several impactful changes to company policies. This was a good move for Schultz, and I’m not cynical enough to believe it was just a simple PR exercise.

But here’s the thing: Starbucks has over 9,000 locations in the US, which means that Schultz visited just 2% of cafés and spoke with just a fraction of a fraction of his workforce. It’s great that Schultz clearly wants to listen to his workers’ grievances and change the company accordingly, but there is simply no realistic way for him to visit all cafés and speak to all of his employees. On the flip side, there is no realistic way for hundreds of thousands of Starbucks baristas to individually show up to Starbucks headquarters in Seattle to talk to Schultz about how they want to change the company. (I imagine neither his office nor his schedule could accommodate all of them.)

For this reason, if Schultz really wants to share success with his workers and make the changes that they want, then unions are his best path forward. Just like voters do in every city and state around the country, workers can elect representatives through unions that can speak on their behalf. These representatives can then negotiate with Schultz and other Starbucks executives to make change. Contrary to what Schultz believes, this way of doing business would not pit workers against executives, but instead would bring all Starbucks stakeholders’ voices to the bargaining table in the most logistically feasible way possible.

Schultz understands that paying and treating workers well makes for better business. Now, he just needs to understand that the most appropriate way to treat workers well is to let them unionize. As a shareholder of Starbucks with a vested interest in the company’s success, I hope that Schultz comes to this realization sooner rather than later so this conflict can be resolved via handshakes in a boardroom instead of orders in a courtroom.

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