One person from Starbucks responded to a subpoena from Senate labor committee chair Bernie Sanders, but there seemed to be two versions of Howard Schultz at the witness table.
Schultz number one was the typical anti-union corporate executive. Despite the vast number of unfair labor practice charges that have been filed by Starbucks workers, many of which have been sustained by NLRB administrative law judges, he insisted the company has done nothing wrong. Accused of failing to bargain in good faith at the locations where employees have voted for representation, he blamed the union.
While giving gave lip service to the idea that workers have a right to seek union representation, Schultz added that “the company has a right to express a preference.” Not only does such a right not exist, but Starbucks has, as fired activist Jaysin Saxton testified at the hearing, gone far beyond stating its opinion. It stands accused of using many classic union-busting tactics as well as new ones such as refusing to allow credit card tipping at pro-union locations.
The other Howard Schultz tried to portray himself as a model employer, insisting that Starbucks offers much better pay and benefits than its competitors in the retail sector. Even if there is some truth in this, it is not saying much that you treat your workforce a bit better than Walmart and McDonald’s.
This Schultz argued that unionization might be appropriate at companies that treat their workers unfairly, but not at a supposedly enlightened one like Starbucks. What he could not seem to comprehend is that as much as the company claims to value and respect its green-aproned “partners,” they may want to relate to management on a more equal footing.
If Starbucks really believed in employee empowerment, it would have adopted a neutral stance toward unionization, as Microsoft did in response to the union push at Activision Blizzard. Instead, it has resorted to retrograde anti-union practices that strengthen the case for collective bargaining.
This approach throws into question the idea that Starbucks is a high-road company. Despite its carefully cultivated reputation, there have long been signs of questionable policies at the coffee chain. Some of these can be seen in the Starbucks entries in Violation Tracker, which documents more than $50 million in penalties over the past two decades. Almost all of these are employment-related.
For example: in 2013 the company agreed to pay $3 million to settle litigation alleging it denied baristas their right under California law to take uninterrupted meal breaks. Starbucks has paid millions of dollars to settle lawsuits accusing it of improperly classifying employees such as assistant store managers as exempt from overtime pay. In 2019 the company paid $176,000 to state and local agencies in New York to settle allegations it improperly penalized employees who could not find a substitute when they needed to take a sick day.
Long-standing problems such as these, along with its more recent repressive practices, suggest that Starbucks may not be such a paragon of corporate virtue after all. In fact, it may very well be one of those unfair employers that even Howard Schultz admits should be unionized.