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Howard Schultz Says Starbucks Will Never Engage With Union

When asked whether he could ever see himself "embracing the union" as part of a company-wide transformation, Schultz offered a blunt one-word response: "No."

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by Jordan Zakarin

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has no plans to ever negotiate in good faith with Starbucks Workers United, the billionaire said Thursday. The statement marks a significant and potentially illegal shift in the company’s public statements about its relationship with the labor union that has organized nearly 300 stores and counting in less than a year’s time.

During a live interview with the New York Times, Schultz blasted the union as a “third party,” and when asked whether he could ever see himself “embracing the union” as part of a company-wide transformation, Schultz offered a blunt one-word response: “No.”

Prodded further, he maintained his rigid anti-labor stance, suggesting that any contract agreement with workers at the more than 140 stores that have won union elections would constitute a threat to top-down control of the company.

“We are in business to exceed the expectations of our customers,” Schultz said. “100 million people come in to Starbucks, the customer experience will be significantly challenged and less than if a third party is integrated into our business.”

Schultz’s statement could run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act, which requires a constructive approach from employers when its workers vote to form a union. The law demands that during collective bargaining, employers must “confer in good faith with respect to wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.”

Up to this point, Starbucks executives have been careful to insist that the company would bargain in good faith — often in those exact terms.

In December, immediately following the union’s first victories in Buffalo, Rossann Williams, Starbucks president for North America, stated in a public letter that “we will bargain in good faith with the union that represents partners in the one Buffalo store that voted in favor of union representation.”

Similar statements, from Schultz, Williams, and spokespersons for the company, have been made regularly for the past seven months:

Reggie Borges, Starbucks spokesman: “As we have said throughout, we will respect the process and will bargain in good faith guided by our principles.” [Response to union election victory in Mesa, AZ; 2/25/22]

Reggie Borges, Starbucks spokesman: “We will respect the process and will bargain in good faith guided by our principles. We hope that the union does the same.” [Response to more union election victories in Buffalo, NY; 3/9/22]

Reggie Borges, Starbucks spokesman: “We will respect the process and will bargain in good faith … We hope that the union does the same.” [Response to union election victory in Seattle, WA; 3/22/22]

Starbucks spokeswoman, unattributed: “We will respect the process and we will bargain in good faith guided by our principles. We hope the union does the same… From the beginning, we’ve been clear on our belief that we are better together as partners without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed. We respect our partners’ right to organize and are committed to following the NLRB process.” [Response to union election victories in Virginia, 4/26/22]

Howard Schultz: “Where Starbucks is required to engage in collective bargaining, we will negotiate in good faith. Starbucks will not favor or discriminate against any partner based on union issues. And we will respect the right of Starbucks partners to make their own decisions when exercising these rights.” [Starbucks earnings call, 5/3/22]

Unionizing workers tell More Perfect Union that Starbucks has not stuck to those perfunctory public pledges. Workers at unionized stores across the country, including locations in Colorado, Arizona, and New York, say that Starbucks has not responded to overtures made to begin bargaining. Little progress has been made in short, terse sessions between Starbucks and the union bargaining committee at the Elmwood store in Buffalo, which in December became the first location to win a union election.

On Friday, Starbucks will close a unionized store in Ithaca, NY. Workers there learned of the decision through an email sent by a lawyer at union-busting firm Littler Mendelson, which has been designated as the bargaining representative for the company. It was the first time that workers had heard from Littler or Starbucks about terms of employment since winning their election in April.

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