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The New York Times has a lengthy story that details the degree to which Starbucks - which built a reputation on being as progressive, employee-friendly company - has waged war on the elements within the company in favor of unionization.

The piece makes the point that in many cases, people went to work for Starbucks because of the positive aura that the company promoted about respect for employees on the front lines and the generous benefits designed to attract and reward them.  They believed in the company to a degree that many people do not believe in their employers, but in many cases have found the aura to be more about illusion than fact - stores were under-staffed, people were over-worked, and the pandemic made things worse, not better, as headquarters seemed out of touch with the circumstances in which people were working.

As calls for store-by-store unionization grew, the Times writes, a "corporate dirty war" ensured, drawing "a sobering picture of employee rights casually crushed and labor laws too weak to help. Starbucks continues to fight and appeal the many labor complaints pending against it and maintains that the company has done nothing wrong … It’s important to understand what Starbucks has done - and what it hasn’t done. The company has been accused of deploying familiar anti-labor tactics, such as the shuttering of some union stronghold cafes. (Starbucks denies closing stores in response to union drives and blames other factors, such as crime.) Union activists reported being spied upon, harassed or fired on flimsy pretexts, complaints that Starbucks disputes."

Starbucks, the Times reports, "has also done a lot of nothing — time-buying, morale-eroding, innocent-seeming nothing. The company dedicated to caffeinating the world turns out to be very good at moving slowly, and the inaction is devastating for the workers, many of whom are economically vulnerable. Starbucks, on the other hand, faces little risk. Even if the company eventually ends up losing cases on the final appeal — a stage that could take years — the N.L.R.B. is barred from imposing monetary penalties. The board can only order employers to 'make whole' anyone who lost money and warn them to do better."

You can read the Times story here.

KC's View:

The Times piece is particularly withering in its assessment of Starbucks' iconic former (and maybe future?) CEO, Howard Schultz, describing him as "a billionaire who doesn’t want to be called a billionaire, who blusters when his company’s service workers get likened to the blue-collar worker who raised him.  It says that he represents "the chasm between our putative national values and our daily reality. We want to believe in a middle-class America where hard work weaves its own safety net. But millions of workers don’t earn enough money to cover basic expenses," and Starbucks, it suggests, finds itself defending that status quo rather than challenging it.

Defending that status quo rather than challenging it.

I'm sure that Howard Schultz would disagree with that assessment, but it seems to me that the degree to which he has personalized this conversation, taking calls for unionization as an individual affront, actually confirms it.  I am not arguing that unions solve every problem, but as I have said here before, the Starbucks situation actually reflects a reality that cannot be denied - management was detached from the front lines, stores were ill-equipped (literally) to serve their customers, and that's what workers were reacting to.  

In the end, this is the lesson for retailers of any stripe.  You can't be distanced from the stores and people that make up the front lines and that serve as the customers' window on the company's mind, heart and soul.  Starbucks will survive all this tumult, but it may be diminished and even commoditized in the process.  All of which, I would argue, could have been avoided.