Howard Schultz, Union Buster

Millions of workers in the US are excited every time they hear that a new Starbucks has voted to unionize. There is now a serious campaign to unionize the company, which has more than 8,800 stores across the country. As we go to press, employees at 230 stores have already filed for union-recognition elections. The campaign to organize one of the biggest companies in the service sector has repercussions for the 240,000 Starbucks employees, the broader service industry, and the entire working class.

The campaign to organize Starbucks has repercussions for the entire working class. / Image: Starbucks Workers United, Twitter

The momentum has caused a panic in the corporate offices of Starbucks and beyond. Howard Schultz has been brought back as CEO to handle this crisis. The company took this step to have a big name with “progressive” credentials to run its charm offensive. But make no mistake: nobody has more experience busting unions at Starbucks than Howard Schultz. As far back as the 1980s, Schultz worked to crush a union representing workers at a small coffee chain that Starbucks eventually absorbed. This was his first action in a decades-long career of union busting. The corporate offices of Starbucks get what they need in Howard Schultz—both the stick and the carrot.

The battle has already started to turn ugly. Starbucks is carrying out an aggressive campaign of intimidation, distortion, and lies. This is coupled with union-busting executives and lawyers using faux progressive imagery and solemn head nodding at captive-audience anti-union meetings called “co-creation sessions” in truly Orwellian fashion. The thinking is that if workers “feel heard” by the company figurehead, they won’t go through all the trouble to form a union.

According to Schultz, “I was convinced that under my leadership, employees would come to realize that I would listen to their concerns. If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.” But workers should not have any faith in Howard Schultz or his motives. He is a capitalist, and his motives are ultimately driven by the need to generate profits by exploiting the company’s workers.

Along with the saccharine talk, concessions are being promised to Starbucks employees—with the caveat that only employees who are not in the process of unionizing can get them. But giving benefits only to employees who are not union members or in the process of possibly joining the union is a blatant unfair labor practice.

Schultz’s motives are driven by the need to generate profits by exploiting Starbucks workers. / Image: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

But workers would also make a big mistake if they placed any confidence in federal or state labor law. The whole point of labor law is to mediate the class struggle by convincing workers not to mobilize their forces for victory and hope that the capitalist state will force the employer “to be reasonable.” Unions are pressured to obey the laws, but when corporations break them, the worst that happens is a slap on the wrist after years of litigation. It is not labor law, but the workers’ ability to slow down and shut down production, standing strong and united against the boss’s attacks, that protects us and wins victories.

One example of how labor law is primarily a one-way street is the three Starbucks workers fired for union activities. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has sued Starbucks to reinstate these employees. The litigation will commence, and after months, at most, Starbucks will rehire the workers with back pay. This back pay—minus what they have earned elsewhere in the meantime—is only paid once it is proven that Starbucks fired that person for union activity. This means it is perfectly fine to harass, intimidate, and fire workers for union activity if Starbucks is willing to earmark a few bucks from its multibillion-dollar budget. If a worker who comes to work five minutes late happens to be fighting for a union, they can use the lateness as “just cause for termination.”

Capitalist politicians from both parties created the country’s labor laws. Half of the House Democrats’ funding in 2020 came from large individual contributions, 30% coming from PACs, and 17% coming from small individual contributions. Meanwhile, House Republicans received 40% from large individual donations, 30% from PACs, and 22% from small individual contributions. The working class has no party to represent its interests.

Howard Schultz was, until recently, a lifelong Democrat. He has toyed with the idea of running for president for decades and has been active in the halls of power, fighting for his class. He lobbied hard against Seattle, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. He also jumped into the fray over the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) battle in 2009. EFCA would have streamlined the process and made it somewhat easier to form a union, eliminating long periods between filing for elections and the actual vote to join a union. This period is intentionally protracted, during which the boss uses a mixture of threats, lies, and distortions to campaign against the union—the very process dozens of Starbucks stores are engaged in right now.

The only way we will successfully organize a giant company like Starbucks is through mass mobilization. / Elliot Stoller, Flickr

In 2009, when this legislation was on the table, the Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in Congress. A workers’ party with that sort of mandate would have quickly passed EFCA, codified Roe v. Wade into law, dramatically increased the federal minimum wage, passed universal healthcare, abolished student debt, and much more. Needless to say, the Democrats are not a workers’ party. Howard Schultz joined with the CEOs of Whole Foods and Costco to make headlines in their lobbying against EFCA. In the end, EFCA was never even voted on, thanks to the Democratic Party and the pressure that Howard Schultz and his ilk put on them.

The only way we will successfully organize a giant company like Starbucks is through mass mobilization. The Service Employees Industrial Union (SEIU) is taking the lead in organizing the union by forming Starbucks Workers United. But SEIU has donated over $15.5 million to the Democratic Party over the last decade, the same party Howard Schultz donates to. Talk about a class conflict of interest!

The only way labor can fight effectively and win against Schultz and his company is on the basis of class independence, both on the labor front and politically. After all, how could enemy number one in our union meetings be a “friend of workers” in the political arena? Starbucks workers can stand united and defeat Schultz and his gang. But this requires a clear understanding of who is our friend and who is our enemy. If the leadership of Starbucks Workers United is armed with both determination and political clarity, nothing can stop the momentum of the working class.

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