On Monday, interim Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz stepped down from his position about two weeks ahead of his previously announced schedule — and three days before the company’s annual shareholder meeting. Schultz will be testifying under oath on the national stage next week about the company’s labor practices under him and his predecessors. The outgoing executive only agreed to testify under threat of a subpoena from Senator Bernie Sanders, who called Schultz out publicly in his position as head of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Schultz bought the company in 1987 for $3.8 million, with $400,000 of his own money and the rest borrowed from investors like Bill Gates Sr. Indeed, while he previously worked there and no doubt played a very important role in the rise of Starbucks, he is not its founder, as much of mainstream media and even Sanders himself have mistakenly stated.
But Schultz has helped craft this portrait. As with so many other figures like him, his image as the founder of Starbucks is part of a narrative of scrappy entrepreneurialism, propagated in multiple books, fawning media coverage, and a foundation, culminating in his consideration to be Hillary Clinton’s secretary of labor had she won.
It’s not hard to see why Democratic Party leadership is so comfortable with Schultz. Bill Clinton was far from a labor-friendly Democrat, preferring instead to cozy up with business tycoons in the mold of Schultz while passing anti-labor legislation like the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Bill and Hillary actually crossed a picket line on their first date.) If it were up to Democrats like the Clintons, figures like Schultz would make up the party’s leadership — even when they threaten to run as centrist independents and throw an election to the hard right.
Schultz portrays himself as a working-class kid from the Brooklyn projects who grew up to found a $100-billion-plus company and become a billionaire himself. He lived the American dream, and he did it while supposedly maintaining progressive values at the company, like LGBTQ friendliness, health insurance for part-timers, fair treatment for people of color, and more. He even wants you to know that he cares deeply about his company’s workers.
“I’ve talked to thousands of our Starbucks partners,” he said to CNN in February. “I was shocked, stunned to hear the loneliness, the anxiety, the fracturing of trust in government, fracturing of trust in companies, fracturing of trust in families, the lack of hope in terms of opportunity.”
In essence, the public image of Schultz is about how the neoliberal dream works. You can have it both ways, speaking to the interests of workers while owning a private jet, a yacht, and multiple homes.
But if that image reflected the reality for Starbucks baristas, large numbers of them wouldn’t be on Medicaid or without a living wage. And they wouldn’t be organizing unions in mass numbers, as they have been recently, and calling attention to Schultz’s own abuses and that of the company under his tenure.
In reality, Schultz is a CEO who fights unions and their first contract. He has opposed his workers’ attempts to secure their rights and well-being, with Starbucks illegally undermining its own workers’ rights hundreds of times for decades under his influence and leadership.
In the past year and a half alone, Starbucks has closed stores where workers were in the middle of union drives, closed stores that already had unionized, cut workers’ hours, offered benefits and raises to nonunion stores, held captive-audience meetings at which managers bully and intimidate workers with anti-union messages, and much more, creating a climate of retaliation.
Thankfully, in the last two years, Schultz’s actions have faced their most significant challenge. The Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) baristas and their parent union, Workers United, an SEIU affiliate, are seeking to unionize the approximately nine thousand company-run Starbucks in the United States. Upward of seven thousand baristas are now organized members of Workers United through the SBWU network.
Today alone, baristas held one-day strikes at about one hundred stores in advance of tomorrow’s shareholder meeting, according to Starbucks Workers United. Unlike Schultz’s self-portrayal, Seattle Starbucks worker Sarah Pappin describes him in a press release as a “law-breaking former CEO hell-bent on silencing us.”
Thus far, SBWU has unionized about three hundred stores. To Schultz, this is anathema. Last year he told CNN, “I don’t think a union has a place in Starbucks.”
Because of the work of SBWU and allies like other labor organizations and Senator Sanders, Schultz is now among the best known union-busters in the country. The idea of him heading the Department of Labor as a progressive choice wouldn’t pass the laugh test at this point. One hopes that other union-busting CEOs are similarly put through the ringer by the labor movement.
Starbucks workers’ principal goal at this point is negotiating a first contract. They say they want the company to stop pretending to be progressive while breaking labor laws left and right — something they never got under the supposedly liberal Schultz.