Starbucks baristas react to 'threat of unionization' comments from interim CEO Schultz

Interim Starbucks (SBUX) CEO Howard Schultz held a town hall meeting with partners (as Starbucks employees are known) on Monday as he returned to lead Starbucks for the third time while the company faces a small but growing unionization campaign.

"Now here's where it gets a little sensitive — because I've been coached a little bit — but I do want to talk about something pretty serious," Schultz said at one point. "We can't ignore what is happening in the country as it relates to companies throughout the country being assaulted in many ways, by the threat of unionization."

Schultz added that "there's two ways I can approach this. I can say I'm anti-union, and [that] I don't want to see that at Starbucks. But I'm not an anti-union person. I am a pro-Starbucks [person]. Pro-partner, pro-Starbucks culture, pro-heritage, the history of our company. ... We didn't get here by having a union."

Schultz, 68, served as CEO from 1986 to 2000 and took the company public in 1992 at a valuation of $271 million. He returned as CEO in 2008 to help the company weather the recession storms and stayed until 2017. Starbucks's market cap is currently around $100 billion.

Howard Schultz at the April 4, 2022, town hall. (screenshot/Starbucks)
Howard Schultz at the Starbucks town hall on April 4, 2022. (screenshot of recording)

Reactions to Schultz's comments were mixed.

"I think the way that he came across was just very disconnected to the partners," a barista from Boston told Yahoo Finance. "It just felt like he still doesn't understand what this is all about ... I felt like he was just trying to frame it as the union is the problem as opposed to our management is the problem."

Another barista echoed that sentiment.

"I think that the comments and actions Howard made today are excuses and not enough to combat the rising issues that we face," the barista, also from Boston, told Yahoo Finance. "Instead of talking about the union and the issues that baristas face, Howard made constant attacks on us 'trying to take Starbucks’ people."

A Starbucks spokesperson told Yahoo Finance that "the feedback we have seen from partners across our internal and external channels has been overwhelmingly positive" and also pointed Yahoo Finance to positive comments on an instagram post by Schultz.

Starbucks baristas serve coffee during the company's annual shareholder's meeting in Seattle, Washington March 18, 2015.  REUTERS/David Ryder  (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS)
Starbucks baristas serve coffee during the company's annual shareholder's meeting in Seattle, Washington March 18, 2015. REUTERS/David Ryder

'We did make some mistakes during COVID'

Since December 9, 2021, eleven Starbucks stores have voted to unionize — including in Arizona, Upstate New York, and Washington — and nine of those tallies were clearly successful.

About 180 Starbucks stores have filed petitions to organize with the Starbucks Workers United union, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and 77 unfair labor practice cases have been opened against the coffee giant.

During the town hall, Schultz acknowledged that the company made mistakes during the pandemic.

"We did make some mistakes during COVID when we were not at our best," Schultz said, according to a transcript verified by the company. "We're going to fix all that. We're going to restore trust, restore belief. And we're going to do everything we can to ensure the fact that our partners understand the most important elements of everything Starbucks has done and will do is elevating the partner experience."

Schultz added that he returned as interim Starbucks CEO "to ensure the fact that we the collective will co-create a reimagined Starbucks with our partners at the center of it all. As a pro-partner company. A company that does not need someone in between us and our people."

This post was updated to add a comment from a Starbucks spokesperson.

Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv

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