New Orleans In Starbucks case, the new boss is not the same as the old boss. The new boss is the old boss several times over. The Starbucks board brought back Howard Shultz, who became a billionaire as CEO and one of the founders of the chain. Part of his mission was reportedly to come up with a way to blunt the impact of the new unionization phenomenon seeming to sweep through the coffee chain.
This move has been the opposite of a new broom sweeping away the old. Shultz had been dusted off and presented to captive audience meetings in the first union elections in Buffalo, when the company was pretending that he could make a difference. It didn’t work. He may be identified with Starbucks in the business press and among the general public, but he was the architect of current wage, hours, and working conditions, not an answer to them.
His moves have been pretty much standard anti-union playbook. He’s hired a new executive to take charge of labor relations strategy and practices, while continuing to be clear that they oppose the union in all forms everywhere. Shultz claims he is developing a whole new set of employee benefits, which sounds good, but even before he details what these goodies might be, he reveals his true purpose is to claim that they would not be available to any of the stores that are unionizing. He’s hiding behind the fig leaf of not wanting to make a unilateral change where there is a union. Indeed, unilateral changes which affect the unionized workers are an unfair labor practice if they bypass the union and the bargaining process, but there is an easy solution if Schultz really saw this as a problem. All that would be needed is reaching out to the union, and therefore the workers, to ask if they want the benefits. Bargaining for our union, we’ve received hundreds of similar requests from employers over the years where we represented one part of the company and other parts were unrepresented. The answer from the union is almost invariably, yes, when it comes to the company improving conditions for the workers.
This tactic is unlikely to work any better than the others the company has tried. Starbucks workers with Workers United, SEIU, have now filed representation petitions in more than 200 stores with more coming. Last count, 16 stores polled have voted for the union and one has voted against, but even that one was close and continues to be the subject of challenges.
The problem for the union is not how ineffectual Shultz and his tactics are, but the fact that time is on the company’s side. The first election in Buffalo was in early December, meaning that the organizing surfaced in October, so we’re six months into this campaign. The company is still not bargaining and all the pending elections are now going to run into summer. Even when the company comes to the table, it will slow walk the process, which it could easily do for up to a year without breaking a sweat. All a union really wins in an election is the right to not have their majority challenged by the employer for a year. The whole process is dramatic now in the organizing phase, but will be hard to maintain in the bargaining phase.
The company continues to believe in firing organizing leaders and activists in the stores to blunt the drives. The NLRB has filed injunctions, but none of that is speedy either. The company could try to force a strike, but that presents a dilemma for the union as well. They only have real density in Buffalo and Upstate New York with a lot of elections spread all across the country making such actions harder and the pressure on the company less intense. Furthermore, even when strikes might make a difference for union stores, strikes will dampen new organizing among the remaining thousands of nonunion outlets.
Time is not on the side of the union and the company is slowing the clock down to a crawl. Momentum never lasts forever, so the union is having to run as fast as it can against the clock while there is heat and traction among the workers. For organizers this has to be both exciting and nerve wracking, while the rest of us can only root from the stands.