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.”