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Starbucks interim CEO Howard Schultz calls union organizers disruptive, outlines a plan to address employee concerns

Returning interim CEO Schultz has been meeting with employees nationwide to discuss issues like low wages, shift scheduling, staffing issues and burnout

Following Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson’s retirement on April 4, returning Starbucks founder and interim CEO Howard Schultz has wasted no time in announcing his agenda during his time between long-term CEOs: repairing relationships with employees without the help of unions.

Schultz began his second tenure as CEO with trips to visit and meet with employees in Phoenix, Chicago, Long Beach and San Jose to talk about issues they’ve been facing in their stores, including wages, shift scheduling, low staffing and physical/mental burnout. Most of these cities are hotbeds of the union movement happening right now with the company, where more than 200 stores have filed for unionization nationwide with 16 stores now represented by the union SBWorkers United.

In a letter to employees published this week, Schultz said that the company is going through a “disruptive era” and that unions are “aggressively sowing division” while “attempting to sell a very different view of what Starbucks should be.” 

He noted that these collaboration sessions “have not been without efforts at disruption by union organizers” and the letter linked to a video of one of the collaboration sessions where Schultz told a story of a union organizer allegedly interrupting a memorial service at the Starbucks Roastery in Chicago for an employee that has been murdered, to scream at him about unions.

“Of all the things I can think of to demonstrate the values of who we are as a company and the disrespect of an organization that does not know who we are and has created all of these false promises, it is troubling,” he said in the video.

But SBWorkers United organizers and supporters claim that Starbucks has bristled in response to pushback from union supporters. In fact, according to reporting from Vice News, Starbucks has fired four union organizers from their positions since Schultz took the helm last week. There have been multiple reports of Starbucks union organizers being fired by their parent company, though Starbucks has defended termination decisions in each case.

"In his first week back as Interim CEO, Howard Schultz has called the 'threat' of unionization an 'assault' on U.S. companies, has verbally attacked a partner in Long Beach, California, and has overseen the firings of over five union supporters," a representative from SBWorkers United told Nation's Restaurant News. "During this same period, eight stores across the country have won their unions in stunning victories, including two unanimous votes in Massachusetts. In this same period, more than ten stores have filed for union elections, bringing the total number of Starbucks stores that have joined this movement to over 200. There are now over 1,000 organizing committee members across the country who are organizing with integrity, despite Starbucks' best efforts to stop us, and we will continue to fight to hold Starbucks accountable to the company we know it could be." 

Most recently, Starbucks union organizer and Phoenix store employee Laila Dalton claims she was fired unfairly at the beginning of the month. Starbucks said that Dalton was not fired for helping to organize a union, but for recording the conversations of individuals (her store manager) without consent, which is against the law in Arizona.

Schultz’s plan to address employee concerns began with these collaboration-style meetings with employees where employees expressed their concerns honestly about where the company stands on values and store-level challenges.

Despite this dissent within Starbucks stores, the company plans to “rebuild the trust” of its employees and publish an “emerging plan” for change moving forward on May 3 to address concerns of stores without adequate staffing, wages that are not keeping up with needs, and scheduling/benefits flexibility. In photos published by Starbucks, employees wrote suggestions of company policy and operational changes moving forward like “more consistency and transparency” with labor, “Ability to schedule my time on the floor and not feel like I’m taking my colleague’s hours” and “hire more opportunity youth.”

Contact Joanna at [email protected]

Find her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

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