Howard Schultz just learned a very important lesson: union busting doesn’t pay.
Starbucks announced on Wednesday that Schultz would be stepping down from the company’s board — with some outlets maintaining his anti-union stance had become a “distraction” that was hurting the company’s image.
It’s a testament to the movement Starbucks workers have built: a movement capable of taking on a billion-dollar corporation and holding it to account.
It’s been a long time coming. Starbucks workers have fought tirelessly across the country for fair pay, safe working conditions, and dignity on the job. So far, workers at 449 stores in 46 states have filed to unionize, and 356 Starbucks stores have already won their elections. The company has fought worker organizing at every turn: It has been prosecuted for violating labor law in over 2,000 instances, according to the campaign.
Schultz himself has in many ways been the face of Starbucks’ vicious opposition to worker organizing. “Under Schultz’s leadership,” writes the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, “Starbucks has adopted an aggressively anti-union stance that is reflected in Schultz’s public statements, the company’s communications to workers, and its scorched-earth approach to blocking unionization activity.”
Union Busting Is Disgusting
Despite Starbucks’ image as a progressive company, the coffee giant has repeatedly violated federal labor law in the face of workers’ efforts to organize. Workers report being harassed, threatened, retaliated against, and seeing their stores shut down after voting to unionize. Joselyn Chuquillanqui, a Starbucks barista of seven years, was allegedly fired for being three minutes late. Will Westlake, a barista of two and a half years, says he was fired for wearing an anti-suicide pin in rememberance of a colleague who had died by suicide that same year. It’s an egregious pattern — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
As Maddie Doran, a Starbucks worker from Overland Park, Kansas, notes, trans workers have had access to life-saving healthcare held over their heads as an anti-union scare tactic. After she joined a union campaign, Doran states, a store manager told her: “You’re here for the gender-affirming surgeries and I’m worried about you [losing that benefit and] becoming the minority [in contract negotiations], because ultimately the union decides.”
Starbucks doubled down on the insinuation that workers could lose their access to trans healthcare in an emailed statement to In These Times, writing that it could not make “guarantees about any benefits,” and that “even if we were to offer a certain benefit at the bargaining table, a union could decide to exchange it for something else.”
This faux concern is not just manipulative: It’s flat out wrong. A union is not made up of consultants in fancy suits advocating on the behalf of workers; a union is made up of workers themselves, coming together to improve their conditions. Workers would not approve of — or fight for — a contract that leaves them worse off, with less benefits than before. To imply that workers would lose access to these benefits only makes sense if you concede that Starbucks would be the one unilaterally taking it away and that workers would risk their livelihoods to fight for a labor agreement that leaves them worse off.
In the wake of the Dobbs decision, which overturned the constitutional right to abortion, Starbucks drew national praise for its pledge to cover the travel costs for workers seeking abortions — until it emerged that those benefits would be withheld for shops that had chosen to unionize. It was an astonishingly cruel gesture, but it also underscored why Starbucks employees — and all workers — stand to gain so strongly from a union. As Starbucks demonstrated in real time, a boss can give, but a boss can also take away at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, a union contract offers protections that bosses can’t rescind at will.
Despite the company’s best efforts, Starbucks workers have gained serious ground in the fight for worker power. Austin Locke, a Starbucks worker of six years, was fired after his Long Island store voted to unionize — but he was later reinstated, with the company forced to pay $21,000 in back pay and penalties.
A group of Starbucks employees known as the Memphis Seven, too, won reinstatement after being “apparently terminated for their union support.” Meanwhile, the company has been ordered to reopen the Ithaca store they shut down after a successful union vote, with workers set to be rehired with back pay.
Workers are experimenting with creative tactics and coming into their own power as organizers. They’ve built a movement that has inspired people across industries to stand up and fight for more at their jobs. They’ve helped reignite the spark of worker organizing and made unions cool again.
They’ve also mobilized the community in support of their fight. Weeks ago, students successfully pushed Cornell University to end its partnership with Starbucks due to union busting. It’s ignited a wave of organizing across campuses, with students standing in solidarity with Starbucks workers and demanding an end to anti-union retaliation.
“I think it’s because Starbucks markets itself as such a youth-oriented ‘progressive’ company, people are really taken aback by the crazy union-busting and evil sh*t that they’re doing,” one student told Teen Vogue.
Schultz’s dethroning is just the latest in a string of wins — and if the movement’s momentum is any indicator, it’s far from the last. His story should strike fear into the hearts of CEOs nationwide. As it turns out, making yourself the national face of anti-union sentiment — at a time when popular support for unions is at an all time high — is not great for your long-term reputation. Sadly, it’s too late for Howard Schultz to learn that lesson. Maybe other bosses should take heed.