Howard Schultz Confronts Barista Over Starbucks Union Wave

This week, the Starbucks union wave continued its sweep across the country with a victory at three newly unionized stores in Ithaca, New York. Now, 16 Starbucks locations across the country have voted to unionize, and more than 150 more will soon hold votes on whether to unionize. The chain’s new-old CEO Howard Schultz is clearly feeling stressed by these developments, culminating in multiple tense exchanges with workers at a meeting between Schultz and Starbucks employees in Long Beach, California.

According to the New York Post, Schultz didn’t mince words while speaking with workers who confronted the CEO over the company’s aggressively anti-union approach, which has allegedly included retaliating against baristas who publicly support the union by firing them or decreasing their hours. “If you hate Starbucks so much, why don’t you go somewhere else?,” Schultz reportedly said to barista and union organizer Madison Hall.

Schultz has been vocally anti-union for decades. That’s nothing new. But what is novel is his level of public frustration in these conversations regarding unionization at Starbucks. To any observer with their eye on Starbucks’s engagement with workers, it would appear Schultz is growing increasingly concerned about just how successful the union drive at Starbucks will ultimately be.

And there are certainly reasons for a powerful CEO to be scared by the might of worker power. Until the first Starbucks voted to unionize, Starbucks leadership had unilateral power over its workforce, for better and for worse. But when a majority of the brand’s more than 8,000 company-operated stores in the United States are operated by unionized workers who will have a say in their pay and working conditions, Starbucks will have to share a much bigger chunk of its billions of dollars in quarterly revenue with the people who actually make and serve the coffee.

That’s something that’s already apparently worrying investors on both sides of the issue — some are worried that the union effort will succeed, while others view Starbucks’s anti-union stance as bad for a company that has long described itself as a progressive employer. On April 12, analysts at Citigroup downgraded Starbucks stock from “buy” to “neutral”, saying that potential investors should wait to see how Schultz would handle the ongoing labor disputes before sinking their cash into the company. Weeks before, some of the company’s most powerful stockholders issued a public letter urging Starbucks to cool it with the anti-union tactics. Schultz’s meltdown indicates that advice didn’t exactly stick.

But Schultz would do well to realize that his strategy of talking terse with workers may ultimately backfire. It’s unlikely that baristas will see any level of relatability in Schultz, who has an estimated net worth of nearly $4 billion and once used his spare cash to mount a run for President of the United States. Plus, Starbucks’s workforce is young, and these Gen Z baristas don’t seem to scare easily. They’re picketing outside of Starbucks locations, spreading the word on TikTok, and plainly stating their demands for better wages. At this point in the Great Resignation, workers are in a unique position to demand more, and that’s not exactly good news for Starbucks’s hardline stance against worker organizing.

When all is said and done, it’s likely that many Starbucks locations will end up with a union, and that means the company will have wasted possibly millions of dollars on anti-union consultants and lawyers and complaints levied by the National Labor Relations Board when they could’ve just done the right thing — sitting down to negotiate with their workers as they are obligated to do by law — in the first place.

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