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Howard Schultz steps down as Starbucks CEO as the union effort persists forward

On Monday, March 20, Howard Schultz stepped down as interim CEO of Starbucks two weeks earlier than expected. This comes less than two weeks after Schultz had agreed to testify in front of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP). The committee, chaired by Senator Bernie Sanders, was a day away from voting to subpoena Schultz. This past Wednesday, March 29, Schultz appeared before the committee for a two-hour testimony, during which he was asked repeatedly to defend his (former) company's unwillingness to engage with unionized workers.

During his time as CEO from 1982 to 2000, Shultz oversaw the expansion of Starbucks from a small franchise in Seattle to a juggernaut in the food industry. He returned to serve another ten years as CEO from 2008 to 2018, during which time he focused on creating a corporate culture that encouraged social responsibility. Though he retired in 2018, he returned once again in April of 2022 to serve as interim CEO, until this past week, when it seems he has stepped down for the third and final time.

During his second tenure as CEO, he crafted the image of the benevolent boss and received praise for many of his liberal policies, including healthcare coverage and college tuition support for employees. In fact, he was even reported to have been one of Hillary Clinton's top choices for Secretary of Labor should she have won in 2016. But on Dec 9, 2021, a Starbucks branch in the Elmwood neighborhood of Buffalo voted to unionize, putting Schultz's character to the test in a dramatically public fashion.

As of the publication of this article, it has been 480 days since this first store in Buffalo voted to unionize, and Starbucks has yet to negotiate a contract with that or any other unionized store in the country. Workers at many stores have reported seeing their hours slashed, unionized stores have been closed or merged with others, and many employees who organize their stores have been outright fired. In a particularly blatant case, workers at a unionizing store in Memphis, dubbed the "Memphis Seven," were fired and then reinstated after a federal judge ruled that their termination was wrongful. Starbucks, naturally, denies that any of this constitutes targeted anti-union measures. On March 1, a judge for the NLRB ruled that Starbucks had to reinstate a number of workers they had fired from unionized stores in Buffalo, NY, claiming that the company had engaged in "egregious and widespread misconduct."

Pittsburgh, in particular, has been the site of significant clashes between Starbucks Workers United, an affiliate of Worker's United that represents unionized stores, and the Starbucks Corporation. The city is home to 11 unionized stores, including the Craig Street store. In September 2022, these stores filed a complaint through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), alleging threats and intimidation against union stores. The employees at the Craig street store were subject to a disinformation campaign, plus attempts by Starbucks to schedule the union vote during the summer break (when many of the Pitt and CMU students staff the store would not be present to vote.)

During his testimony in front of the Senate HELP Committee, a common point by Schultz was that his workers don't "need a union" (in fact, much of the anti-union material made by Starbucks tells workers that they don't need a "third party" to seek redress with the corporation). Schultz also repeatedly brought up his humble upbringing, appearing to even take offense at Senator Sanders labeling him as a "billionaire." He spoke about his father, a World-War II veteran who was mistreated by his employer, as his motivation for having such generous benefits for his workers. Senator Tina Smith from Minnesota observed that Schultz seems to be emotionally invested in the idea that his workers shouldn't "need" a union. "It seems that you feel only bad companies should be unionized ... But I think, Mr. Schultz, that is not your decision to make."

Despite the pressure from the Starbucks corporation, Starbucks Workers United represents over 278 stores nationwide, and workers continue to fight for their right to organize.