Howard Schultz Takes Over as Starbucks CEO as Thousands of Baristas Unionize

"We encourage Howard Schultz to put union-busting behind him and embrace Starbucks’ unionized future.”
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On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.

Former CEO Howard Schultz is back at the helm of Starbucks, after a five-year hiatus, as baristas at more than 140 stores seek to unionize and six locations have won union elections. 

Kevin Johnson is stepping down as chief executive, and Schultz, the chain’s longtime leader who built the company into the world’s largest chain and has expressed vocal opposition to the unprecedented unionization push at Starbucks, will lead as “interim” CEO. 

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In December, baristas at a location in Buffalo, New York, became the first of Starbucks’ 8,000 corporate-owned stores to unionize. Since then, workers have filed for union elections in 20 states. The snowballing, Gen-Z-led labor movement at Starbucks has left the company scrambling for ways to quell union organizing. 

In November, days before a set of union elections began at the three Starbucks locations in Buffalo, Schultz flew in to give a 45-minute speech, titled “From Buffalo With Love”, to unionizing baristas in a Hyatt ballroom, outlining his union-free vision for Starbucks employees. 

In his speech, Schultz drew parallels between working at his company and the experiences of prisoners in railcars headed to Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. Schultz noted that on trains, only a few prisoners received blankets and had to share them. “Not everyone, but most people shared their blanket with five other people,” Schultz said. “So much of that story is threaded into what we’ve tried to do at Starbucks is share our blanket.”

Throughout the first three union drives in Buffalo, Starbucks waged one of the most high-profile and aggressive anti-union campaigns the country has seen in years, including swarming stores with top executives. A Huffington Post investigation in February found that Starbucks had hired at least 30 lawyers from a top anti-union law firm to work on the union campaign. 

In response to news of Schultz’s return, Starbucks Workers United, the union which Starbucks workers are joining, told Motherboard in a statement, “Howard Schultz has waged an ideological war on unions, including coming to Buffalo, NY, to personally try to convince workers to vote 'no' to our union. We encourage Howard Schultz to put union-busting behind him and embrace Starbucks' unionized future. We also ask that he signs the Fair Election Principles.”