In an apparent last-ditch attempt to convince workers to vote against a union campaign at three Starbucks stores in the Buffalo area, Howard Schultz, the company’s former CEO and largest shareholder, gave a speech to workers that drew parallels between working at his company and the experiences of prisoners in rail cars headed to Nazi concentration camps in Poland and Germany.
Schultz noted that in the rail cars, only a few prisoners received blankets and had to share them with five people. A rabbi who told Schultz the story on a trip to Israel said that Schultz should share his blanket, he said.
“Not everyone, but most people shared their blanket with five other people,” Schultz, who noted that he is Jewish before sharing the story, said. “So much of that story is threaded into what we’ve tried to do at Starbucks is share our blanket.”
The metaphor, seemingly, was an attempt to explain that Starbucks has built an unparalleled corporate culture over the last 50 years that both he and employees could be proud of. During the 45-minute speech, Schultz lamented the state of politics and also talked about innovations in coffee making and his vision for employees. (Schultz has shared this anecdote when speaking with shareholders.)
He mentioned Starbucks is working on "A completely new cold beverage station to make life easier because 50-60 percent of our customers are into cold brew," he said. "We’re investing ahead of the curve to make sure we get this right. The American dream? What does it mean? Is it still alive, given the backdrop of our politics and hatred on social media that exists, the loss of faith and confidence in what we stand for. The lack of civility among our politicians in Washington. I have great faith in the American people. We’ve been through worse as a country. We are going to navigate through this. We’re going to come out the other side. I promise that Starbucks is going to be one of the companies that people point to and say, ‘They got it right. They got it right.’”
A Starbucks spokesperson declined to comment on Schultz's speech but directed us to a page it set up about the speech.
The spokesperson also pointed out that Schultz told the blanket story before, in a March 2016 speech to shareholders about “the American dream.”
Schultz flew in to Buffalo to give a speech to unionizing workers at a Hyatt Regency Hotel on Oct. 6. Schultz’s event was optional, but Starbucks cancelled work so that employees could attend.
In his 45-minute speech, Schultz did not directly reference the union, but repeatedly alluded to the ongoing union drive by referencing workplace issues at the unionizing Starbucks stores.
To date, none of Starbucks’ 8,000 stores in the United States have unionized. A victory for the union could have a reverberating impact not just for other Starbucks stores but also for the fast-food and retail industries, which have long remained out of reach for unions.
More than 100 Starbucks employees are scheduled to begin mail-in voting on Nov. 10. Ballots will be counted on Dec. 10.
Starbucks has waged one of the most high-stakes and high-profile anti-union campaigns the country has seen in years. Voting is expected to begin Wednesday, but on Monday Starbucks requested the election be delayed, because of “the complex nature of the case” and “the impact the decision will have on Starbucks’ (and potentially other major retailers’) operations nationwide,” according to a National Labor Relations Board filing obtained by Motherboard.
Other union-busting tactics have included mandatory anti-union meetings, anti-union emails, the temporary closure of two unionizing stores, pay raises, and extended visits from high-profile executives, including the president of Starbucks North America.
A spokesperson Starbucks told Motherboard at the time that meetings were encouraged but not mandatory, and that the decision to close one of the stores and use it as a "training store" was a response to complaints from workers that they weren’t receiving enough training and had been stung by bees in a beehive that had been at the store for months. The spokesperson denied that store closures were related to the union drive.
Throughout his speech, Schultz spoke at length about his track record as CEO of Starbucks, and his commitment to his employees. He noted that the company started providing health insurance to its workers without anyone having to force it, and that it also gives shares of Starbucks stock to workers via its “Bean Stock” program.
Schultz has publicly considered running in the U.S. presidential elections several times, and his talk with workers often sounds like a presidential stump speech, going over his family history and how he learned the values that guide him as a business leader.
"Everything we’ve done since 1971 has been to try and do everything we can to exceed the expectations of the people wearing green. I know in my heart who we are, what we stand for, what we believe in, and I know in my heart what the future holds for the company. I know in my heart what we hope for you and your families," he said. "In so many ways, for a kid from Brooklyn, from the projects, I’ve been blessed. My dreams have come true. And my only hope, my sincere hope for all of you is that your dreams will come true as well.”
“You can walk out of here and say, ‘Great talk, a lot of passion.’ I didn’t fly here for a great talk and some words that don’t mean anything," he added. "I came here because of my love of the company and my deep responsibility to the partners and their families. And I came here to tell you our story and where it came from. The projects of Brooklyn. The things we’ve done because we felt it was the right thing to do. No one forced us to do it.”
When a unionizing worker asked Schultz if he would sign an agreement to follow “fair election principles,” Schultz fled the room, according to several workers.