Starbucks to be led by Howard Schultz again as US workers push to unionize

Schultz will be CEO of coffee chain for a third time, while workers across 27 states petition to hold unionization votes

Starbucks’ former leader Howard Schultz will replace chief executive Kevin Johnson as the coffee chain deals with a wave of unionization drives among its baristas.

The shakeup in leadership, announced on Wednesday, comes as Starbucks workers across the country are pushing to form unions. Since a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York became the first store to vote to unionize in December, workers at six other locations have unionized, and workers at 130 other stores across 27 states have petitioned to hold votes.

Johnson will leave his post on 4 April and will serve on the company’s board and in an advisory role through September. The company said he had signaled to the board of directors around a year ago that he was thinking of retiring.

“It’s been deliberate,” said Mellody Hobson, the Starbucks chair, to the Wall Street Journal. “This is not hasty in any way.”

In a separate statement, Hobson said that “as the company navigates the aftermath of the pandemic and socio-economic forces impacting the lives of all our stakeholders, [Schultz] will reinforce the company’s culture”.

Schultz, who served as chief executive of the company from 1987 to 2000, and then a second time from 2008 to 2017, has been running his family foundation and working on various philanthropic efforts since he last stepped down. In 2019, Schultz briefly teased a presidential run.

Schultz will take the job on an interim basis while the company seeks a permanent replacement. Though Schultz had formally stepped away from the company, he was still involved in company matters around unionization.

Last fall, Schultz paid a visit to employees in Buffalo as they were undergoing unionization efforts. In a letter to employees, who the company refers to as “partners”, Schultz said: “No partner has ever needed to have a representative seek to obtain things we all have as partners at Starbucks. And I am saddened and concerned to hear anyone thinks that is needed now.”

Workers reported that Schultz stuck to the message during a speech to employees. One worker involved in the union told Bloomberg that when she tried to ask Schultz if he would support union principles that would restrict union-busting, she was escorted away.

Multiple workers who have been involved in union activities at different stores have accused the company of terminating pro-union workers. Workers who were trying to start union efforts in Nashville and Orlando were fired, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in August ruled that the company illegally retaliated against two baristas in Philadelphia who were trying to start a union. The company has repealed the ruling and has denied terminating employees for union-related activities.

On Tuesday, a group of investors that hold a combined $1.2bn in Starbucks stock sent a letter to the company, urging it to adopt “a global policy of neutrality for all future attempts of workers to organize” and reach a “fair and timely” bargain with those who have voted to unionize. The investors also criticized Starbucks’ previous response to unionization efforts.

“Starbucks has responded to union organizing activities suggests a departure from international norms and standards as well as from its commitments to them,” the investors said.

“Our concerns include Starbucks’ activities at stores that have organized after the Buffalo election such as alleged retaliatory termination of employees and continued captive audience meetings.”


Lauren Aratani in New York

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Union drive at Manhattan roastery shows spirit of Starbucks workers
Since the first successful drive in Buffalo, 18 US locations have unionized – including at the chichi New York ‘reserve’

Michael Sainato

19, Apr, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Massachusetts Starbucks workers push to unionize after New York win
Boston workers at two stores were inspired by Buffalo workers who succeeded in unionizing in at least one branch

Michael Sainato

16, Dec, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
A New York Starbucks abruptly closed – was it retaliation for a union drive?
Workers in Ithaca say closure represents pure opposition from Starbucks, whose CEO says he will ‘never embrace the union’

Michael Sainato

04, Jul, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Starbucks workers at over 100 US stores walk out ahead of shareholder meeting
Workers hold protest in Seattle outside of Starbucks’ headquarters in response to the company’s aggressive anti-union efforts

Michael Sainato

22, Mar, 2023 @2:27 PM

Article image
Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz to quit amid rumors of run for office
Schultz, who joined in 1982 and has overseen global expansion, says options range from ‘philanthropy to public service’

Dominic Rushe in New York

04, Jun, 2018 @9:44 PM

Article image
Howard Schultz ends third stint as Starbucks CEO early
Fiercely anti-union Schultz stands down two weeks early having agreed to appear before Senate labor panel next week

Lauren Aratani

20, Mar, 2023 @3:27 PM

Article image
Calls for Starbucks boycott grow amid aggressive union-busting activities
Boycott would aim to use consumer power to pressure company to negotiate its first union contract

Steven Greenhouse

13, Sep, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Revealed: Starbucks fired over 20 US union leaders in recent months
Workers at the coffee chain have filed petitions for union elections at more than 250 stores, but chief Howard Schultz publicly opposes the movement

Michael Sainato

19, May, 2022 @2:53 PM

Article image
‘The law is finally catching up’: the union contract fight at Starbucks
National Labor Relations Board details slew of complaints and rulings against coffee chain waging fierce anti-union campaign

Michael Sainato

12, May, 2023 @10:00 AM

Article image
Starbucks launches aggressive anti-union effort as upstate New York stores organize
Management urges baristas to reject the union at mandatory ‘listening’ sessions, shuts stores holding drives

Michael Sainato

23, Nov, 2021 @10:00 AM