By COLIN STAUB
Fourteen senators including Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley wrote to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz May 10, condemning his recent anti-union remarks and calling for voluntary union recognition.
Since last September, Starbucks workers at 256 stores in 38 states have filed for union election, and they’re voting to unionize at overwhelming rates. The newly formed Starbucks Workers United union has won 72 elections so far at the 81 stores where election results had been certified as of May 16.
Schultz—who led Starbucks from 1986 to 2000 and from 2008 to 2017—returned as Starbucks CEO April 4. In a letter to employees on his first day back on the job, he said Starbucks will suspend stock buybacks and invest more of its profit into its workforce. But in a May 3 earnings call he suggested the improvements would only happen at nonunion stores.
“[Starbucks does] not have the same freedom to make these improvements at locations that have a union or where union organizing is underway,” Schultz said on the call.
It’s true that under federal law, where workers have voted to be union represented, an employer can’t change terms and conditions without first negotiating. But if an employer is improving conditions for nonunion workers, nothing prevents it from offering the same improvements to the union, senators pointed out in the letter.
“By offering to increase benefits for your workers, Starbucks is doing what the union campaigns have said all along: Starbucks can and should provide better working conditions and benefits for its workers. It is unfortunate that Starbucks has chosen to do this now seemingly to interfere with the union campaigns.” the lawmakers wrote. “Suggesting publicly that benefits cannot be extended to workers in a union is a bad faith move to undermine contract negotiations with unionized locations.”
The senators called on Schultz to voluntarily recognize unionization efforts and to pursue a nationwide bargaining agreement covering all Starbucks employees.
“Starbucks is an American success story, and at this moment you can be the model other corporations look to by partnering with your workers who are risking their livelihoods to demand a voice on the job through a union.”
Besides Merkley, the letter was signed by Senators Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Edward Markey, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthal, Kirstin Gillibrand, Chris Van Hollen, Alex Padilla, Robert Casey, Mazie Hirono, Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar.
Merkley was the only senator in Oregon and Washington to sign the letter, but the other three say they remain supportive, and Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden said he endorses the letter.
“I strongly support Starbucks workers in Oregon and nationwide as they exercise their right to organize in pursuit of improved pay as well as better benefits and workplace conditions,” Wyden told the Labor Press in a written statement. “Unions have proven themselves throughout U.S. history as an effective means to secure worker gains, and I’m confident they can achieve the same for Starbucks employees.”
Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and chair of the Senate Labor Committee, stopped short of endorsing the letter but told the Labor Press that workers have the right to join a union, including Starbucks employees. “It’s absolutely unacceptable when corporations break the law and union bust. I will always stand with workers and I will always fight to protect their right to organize.”
Asked why her name wasn’t on the letter, Washington Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell said in a statement that she will always support the right to unionize, and that unions are essential to growing the middle class and protecting workers.