Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is horrified at a proposal to return to 70 percent taxes on him and his fellow billionaires. He thinks Medicare for All is un-American. He’d prefer billionaires were referred to as “people of means.” He told MSNBC that “unions are not the answer” to the problem of growing inequality. Since he tweeted his presidential aspirations last month, his mostly-foam platform has gone over so poorly that in Indiana he had to ask his invitation-only audience to clap, and one poll showed him the lowest-rated of any potential candidate tested. Yet CBS, Fox, and CNN have given the “thinking about it” independent candidate for president copious free air time to share his “vision for the country.”
All that makes Kent, Washington, union member Jeff Alexander a little bit sick.
Today, Alexander, 60, is a union rep with Operating Engineers Local 286. But in the late 1990s, he worked at the Starbucks roasting plant in Kent, Washington, part of a 22-person maintenance crew. The crew’s job was to keep eight Italian-made roasting machines and three packaging lines running, in one of the most automated coffee roasting plants in the world.
Alexander was bent over working on an electrical problem at the loading dock the first time he met the Starbucks CEO.
“Someone said, ‘Here’s Howard Schultz!’ I looked up, my hands all dirty and said, ‘Hey, Howie, how’s it going?’ He just looked back down at me and walked away.”
Alexander, a divorced single dad taking care of four kids, had been working graveyard and swing shift at a meatpacking plant when he heard that a brand-new Starbucks roastery was hiring for day shift. Day shift was a prime reason he took the job. So when managers started changing employee schedules and took away overtime pay for holiday work, Alexander and others at the plant were steamed. Several co-workers went to talk to Operating Engineers Local 286, and came back having signed union cards. Alexander wasn’t one of them, but he’d earlier been a member of the union at Oscar Mayer in Los Angeles.
“I filled out the card. We went through the plant and talked to everyone we could. Of course it went straight to management. And boom, we were in captive audience meetings… They shut the whole plant down to talk about the union.”
Word got out that Howard Schultz himself would be addressing workers at one of the management-led anti-union meetings. Alexander, who drove a 1985 Suburban in those days, remembers looking out the window to see Schultz arrive in a brand-new Jaguar.
“He was making millions a year,” Alexander said. “I was making 24 bucks an hour.”
At the meeting, Schultz told workers they didn’t need to go union, and should just trust him. Anti-union rhetoric flowed forth from the front of the room. The co-workers who’d started the union campaign stayed silent. Alexander spoke up.
“All of a sudden, I was the poster boy.”
He overheard a manager say he’d just cooked his own goose.
“It was ‘game on’ after that. They just come after you,” Alexander said. “It became very hostile in the plant, with management following you. We were trying to stick together, wearing our union hats.”
On Nov. 17, 1999, the vote took place. Despite the anti-union blitz, workers won a union 14 to 8. That’s when the real odyssey began — getting the thoroughly anti-union company to agree to a union contract.
“All we wanted was a pension,” Alexander recalls. “And we were paying $600 a month for family medical — back in the ’90s! We didn’t want to pay for medical, and we wanted a union pension.”
Starbucks dragged out contract negotiations. After a year, anti-union workers filed for a decertification election to vote the union out. Again the company held meetings. But the Feb. 28, 2001, vote was 11 to 8 in favor of the union.
To get a contract, the union and its supporters tried to ratchet up the pressure. They talked to Schultz’s rabbi. They picketed outside Schultz’s Seattle mansion, alongside a 12-foot rat balloon. At a Starbucks shareholder meeting at Seattle’s Beniroya Hall, Alexander showed up in jeans and flannel to confront Schultz and other company executives.
“Is Starbucks anti-union?” he remembers asking at the microphone. He says the mic then went dead. Security surrounded him and escorted him out.
Back at the roasting plant, police were called to respond to a parking lot altercation involving pro- and anti-union workers. An anti-union co-worker threatened to kill Alexander. Alexander told management he wouldn’t return to work unless they could assure his safety. Instead, he says, they paid him to go away. He went back to work at the meat processing plant.
Six months later, his former co-workers got their union contract. It had no significant wage gains, no pension, and the weakest benefits of any contract the local had ever negotiated.
In 2002, Alexander went to work at Local 286, first as a union organizer, later as a rep.
By the time the Starbucks union contract expired in 2004, the most stalwart union workers were gone. Anti-union workers again filed for a decertification, and this time the union walked away, knowing it had only half a dozen supporters remaining.
Not long after that, a woman showed up at the union hall with a remarkable story. Working at Starbucks in human resources, she’d been told by superiors to throw out the applications of anyone who’d ever worked union their entire career. When she refused, she was fired. Local 286 got a lawyer and helped her file charges saying Starbucks conduct violated federal labor law. The National Labor Relations Board agreed. To settle the case, Starbucks agreed to pay $125,000 to the fired HR employee, and $5,000 each to eight former union members who had been interviewed, but not hired.
To this day, Alexander says he would never set foot in a Starbucks — and it burns him up to see Starbucks served at union events or in rooms at unionized hotels.
Howard Schultz: Billionaire union-buster
- Busting UFCW In 1986, when Schultz joined Starbucks management, it was a Seattle-area gourmet coffee chain, and shop and roasting plant workers were represented by UFCW Local 1001. Starbucks demanded concessions including medical benefit cuts and an end to “just cause” discipline. Schultz encouraged workers to vote out the union, and they did, first in retail stores and then at the Seattle roasting plant.
- Busting the Operating Engineers In 1999, when machine maintenance workers at Starbucks’ Kent, Washington, roasting plant sought to join Operating Engineers Local 286, Schultz attended an anti-union meeting and made a personal appeal to vote no. They voted yes anyway, but an unrelenting anti-union campaign took its toll by 2004, and the union lost support after just one hard-fought contract.
- Busting IWW In 2004, when workers at Starbucks stores in New York City and elsewhere started campaigning with Industrial Workers of the World, Schultz sent a company-wide voicemail saying how disturbed and disappointed he was by that, and visited the store where the campaign began. Store managers then forbade employees from discussing the union inside the store, transferred anti-union workers to stores that had union activity, fired union supporters in New York and Minneapolis, and banned workers from wearing pro-union buttons. In the face of the onslaught, the union effort fizzled. But Starbucks kept fighting in court and in 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed they could bar workers from wearing more than one union button.