Howard Schultz Hasn’t Won His Anti-Union Fight at Starbucks

Starbucks workers are up against stiff odds as their company blatantly tries to destroy organizing efforts. But given the momentum the workers have built through hundreds of union wins, no one should count the Starbucks union out yet.

Howard Schultz speaking in Milan, Italy, 2018. (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

Several media outlets have recently published stories expressing pessimism about the prospects for the fledgling union movement at Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, and other high-profile companies. There’s no doubt that these corporations are intent on crushing workers’ efforts to form unions, as seen by recent defeats for pro-union workers at Amazon in Albany, Trader Joe’s in Brooklyn, and Home Depot in Philadelphia. But the situation is not as pessimistic as some commentators believe — particularly when it comes to the union drive at Starbucks, even though the company has engaged in one of the most unlawful anti-union campaigns in recent memory.

New York Times journalist Noam Scheiber, who has published several outstanding stories on the organizing wave, correctly points out the high stakes at Starbucks: if Starbucks succeeds in crushing its pro-union workers, it could become the model for other anti-union corporations. Geico and Trader Joe’s are already using Starbucks as a cautionary tale in their anti-union propaganda, pointing out that Starbucks has (unlawfully) denied wage and benefit increases to workers in organizing stores and that workers have yet to gain a contract almost a year after the first vote to unionize.

Thus, the entire labor movement and the Biden administration — not just the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), Jennifer Abruzzo, who, despite the best of intentions, has failed to make the law functional — needs to ensure that Starbucks doesn’t get away with its unlawful campaign. But Scheiber sees only two potential outcomes: Starbucks Workers United wins a good contract, which would inspire further organizing, or the union “gets nothing,” which would “discourage other workers from unionizing at Starbucks and beyond.”

So, is the current organizing wave in danger of going up in a puff of smoke? The legacy of these campaigns is undetermined, and Scheiber is right to say the Starbucks campaign has entered a “new phase.”  But his either/or scenario for what happens next is too restrictive and pessimistic, both for the Starbucks campaign and for its impact on the broader labor movement.

The Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) campaign is currently the most fluid and unpredictable situation of all the current union drives, and one can imagine several plausible outcomes. Moreover, it offers the most promising model for union revival at the national level, and the organizing wave that it has helped inspire will likely continue regardless of what happens during bargaining.

Starbucks Workers United: The Future is Unwritten

With 258 victories so far, the Starbucks union has won far more elections than any other campaign and is much more geographically diverse and fragmented than its counterparts, thus making the situation more fluid and unpredictable. Workers are continuing to vote to unionize, albeit in smaller numbers and despite Starbucks’s myriad unfair labor practices, and they are even continuing to vote unanimously for the union in some stores. Starbucks Workers United is still winning in parts of the country in which union victories are rare: last week, workers voted to unionize in Scottsboro, Alabama.

And though it has lost approximately fifty elections, most by narrow margins, this has not impeded its spread. Workers are striking against unlawful union busting in stores in several states, including a sixty-four-day strike at a store in Boston. Were it not for the widespread fear caused by Starbucks’s unlawful campaign — fear of losing wages and benefits, unlawful dismissals, loss of hours and shifts, and store closures — the union would have likely won ten times that number of elections by now.

In recent weeks, dozens of stores across the country have met with Starbucks management to bargain. So far, Starbucks and its Littler Mendelson attorneys have largely treated these meetings as additional captive audience meetings and have refused to participate in hybrid sessions. However, SBWU and corporate management are setting up further bargaining meetings, and the main economic issue — the benefits Starbucks has unilaterally and illegally given to its nonunion stores — won’t even fall within the realm of collective bargaining.

Rather, it will be decided by the NLRB, whose Seattle regional director’s decision in August that Starbucks has engaged in unlawful coercion deserves urgent priority. As worker-organizer Michelle Eisen pointed out in Congressional testimony in September, the SBWU union campaign and its organizing and bargaining demands are the only reason Starbucks gave those additional benefits, including the first seniority pay in Starbucks’s fifty-year history.

Given the fluidity of the situation, several outcomes are plausible. The union has developed real strength in Buffalo, Ithaca, and Albany, New York; Eugene and Portland, Oregon; Boston, Massachusetts; Richmond, Virginia; Seattle, Washington; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which won’t easily be dislodged. It could eventually target district-wide negotiations in those regions.

Moreover, the union can demonstrate its value even without a collective agreement. Starbucks baristas are mainly part-timers who want, among other things, both flexibility and security. Thus, one can well imagine a scenario in which, even in the absence of a contract, the union performs so effectively where it is strong that baristas elsewhere would see its real value and continue to unionize.

The situation at Amazon, in contrast, is far more rigid and arguably less promising for unions. Along with SBWU, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) has helped breathe new life into a largely moribund labor movement: it provided the most memorable election victory for decades, and its president, Chris Smalls, helped change the public face of unions. However, in contrast with Starbucks, union organizing at Amazon’s much larger warehouses is more of an all-or-nothing affair.

If the union loses, as it did in Albany and the second election in Staten Island, it gets nothing, and the blow to the campaign is far greater than at Starbucks. High turnover and Amazon’s ability to pack bargaining units makes it difficult to even trigger an election. Amazon intends to contest the ALU’s one victory at Staten Island all the way to the federal courts. So, despite a flurry of labor activism, union achievements at Amazon seem far less tangible.

Along with the grassroots campaign of Trader Joe’s United, moreover, the ALU has shown how difficult it is for an independent union to replicate its victories and win multiple elections at the same powerful anti-union corporation. In addition to legal representation and other financial and logistical resources, grassroots worker-organizers need good advice, strategic decision-making, and a replicable model. The SBWU campaign has successfully combined those elements through its initial relationship with Workers United of Upstate New York, and subsequently with other Workers United regions as the campaign spread across the country. It should serve as a model for how established unions can encourage and facilitate worker self-organization.

Marketing Unionization

In less than a year, Starbucks Workers United has gone from having zero to 258 unionized stores — an astounding success that no one predicted. With the anniversary of the first victory in Buffalo approaching on December 9, Starbucks could simply be trying to run down the clock, attempting to prepare the ground for future decertification campaigns or throwing sand in the gears of the NLRB’s processes in the hope of getting a new, more corporate-friendly board after the 2024 election from a Republican president.

However, it’s equally likely that the company ultimately recognizes the irreparable damage it has already done to its public image and its brand and instead resigns itself to having several hundred unionized stores spread across the nation for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding Howard Schultz’s determination to deny “his people” any real agency or independent voice at work. Starbucks’s progressive reputation makes it more vulnerable to lasting reputational damage and a potential consumer boycott than most companies who engage in unlawful union busting.

If this sounds too pollyannaish, consider the last time Starbucks faced immense public outcry over a wrongheaded decision: when they banned Black Lives Matter (BLM) masks and pins in 2020. The company subsequently reversed course and issued their own BLM, corporate-branded T-shirts in order to market themselves as endorsing the very thing they had prohibited. This could foreshadow their eventual approach to marketing themselves as a unionized coffee shop in an industry known for poverty-level wages and union busting. Starbucks could do worse than follow the lead of the grocery chain A&P, which, after it was organized by the Amalgamated Meat Cutters in the 1930s, started to display “certified union establishment” signs as a marketing tool.

It’s unclear where this all heads next, but one thing is certain: the union fight at Starbucks is not over by a long shot.