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Howard Schultz’s Own Foundation Decries Starbucks’ Treatment of Its Workers

By Ginny Keenan

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s foundation has released a report that rates Starbucks as one of the worst large employers in the country for worker advancement.

The Schultz Family Foundation published what it describes as an “unprecedented” study of economic outcomes for workers at America’s 250 largest companies, in partnership with Harvard Business School and The Burning Glass Institute. The study ranked major employers by how well they foster “economic mobility for workers,” including through opportunities for promotions and “the pay they offer in low- and middle-skill roles.”

Starbucks earned one of the lowest ratings in the study, placing it in the bottom 50 of the surveyed companies, beneath brands with notably poor reputations for worker treatment including Walmart and Dollar General. Within its industry category, Food and Health Retail, Starbucks ranked second to last, scoring 2.60, ahead of only McDonald’s, which scored 2.03. Costco, the leader in the category, received a 3.59.

The study gave each company an overall score based on nine measures related to topics like pay and internal job mobility. Starbucks received the lowest-possible ratings on three of the nine measures, including its wages and frequency of internal promotions. It also received low grades for employee retention and for creating “barriers to work” for applicants without a college degree.

The Schultz Family Foundation’s assessment of Starbucks is at odds with how Howard Schultz has described the company. Speaking to investors in May, Schultz said the company had a 50-year history of “leadership in wages and benefits” that reflected his “deep responsibility to our partners.” When Starbucks workers first began to unionize over a year ago, Schultz publicly stressed that he prioritized his employees’ satisfaction over shareholder profits. This echoed his 1999 memoir, where Schultz wrote that he believed if employees “had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.” 

But the report’s findings align more closely with what Starbucks workers have said since their organizing drive launched last year. Through their union, Starbucks Workers United, employees have pushed to address many of the issues reflected in Starbucks’ low rating, including advocating for wage increases and better employee retention measures. “We want Starbucks to be a place where workers can have sustainable careers and be rewarded for their years of hard work for the company,” the union’s website states

In response, Schultz has overseen an aggressive nationwide union-busting campaign that stalled the improvement of working conditions for employees. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) described Starbucks’ anti-union activity as “virulent, widespread and well-orchestrated.” Federal courts and regulators have repeatedly found that Starbucks has illegally surveilled, punished or fired employees for supporting the union, shuttered stores where workers had unionized, and refused to bargain in good faith as required by law.

“Starbucks has left behind the very values that drew many of us to the company in the first place,” said Starbucks barista and union organizer Michelle Eisen.

Nearly 270 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize in the past year, one of the fastest such drives in modern history, including five more locations in the last month in Arkansas, Washington, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. The NLRB issued two complaints in recent weeks seeking a nationwide injunction on Starbucks’ anti-union activity. If federal judges side with the board, Starbucks will for the first time be barred by court order from anti-union activity nationwide, substantially increasing the potential penalties it could face for further union-busting.

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