Home Ice bergs Again: Starbucks’ longtime CEO is back. This time things are different

Again: Starbucks’ longtime CEO is back. This time things are different

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NPR
Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Starbucks founder and two-time CEO Howard Schultz is returning to the company as interim executive. His return coincides with a widespread union campaign by the chain’s employees.

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Starbucks founder and two-time CEO Howard Schultz is returning to the company as interim executive. His return coincides with a widespread union campaign by the chain’s employees.

Transcription

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

A big week for Starbucks – Howard Schultz is back as interim CEO. Schultz made the company a global powerhouse. And he’s also responsible for Starbucks’ reputation as a great place to work — now high on his to-do list, to salvage that reputation as workers band together to raise grievances and demand more. NPR’s Andrea Hsu reports.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Last November, Howard Schultz traveled to Buffalo, NY, to try to cool a grassroots labor campaign. Store employees were invited to spend part of their Saturday with him.

(SOUND EXTRACTION OF THE CHEERING CROWD)

HSU: Schultz donned a Mister Rogers look with a zip-up cardigan for what he called an intimate conversation.

(SOUND EXCERPT FROM AN ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOWARD SCHULTZ: I just want to speak from my heart about how I feel about this company and what we’ve been trying to do over these many years.

HSU: It started with his own story – how he grew up poor in Brooklyn, how one day his father, a delivery man, slipped on ice and broke his hip and ankle. He had no health insurance, no workers compensation. In fact, he was fired.

(SOUND EXCERPT FROM AN ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHULTZ: I lived, at the age of seven, the imprint, the shame, the vulnerability, the embarrassment of a really deprived family.

HSU: Schultz said it drove him to create the kind of company his father never had the chance to work for, and as CEO of Starbucks, he did. In 1988, he extended health care to part-time employees, which was virtually unheard of at the time. A few years later, the workers won stock options and, in 2014, full college tuition, all without a union. On his first day back, Schultz said the company doesn’t need someone between us and our employees. He said he was reinventing a new Starbucks where employees or partners, as he calls them, are at the center of everything.

(SOUND EXCERPT FROM AN ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCHULTZ: It’s a return to doing everything we can to put our partners first, especially the partners who wear the green apron in our stores.

HSU: People like Galen Berg (ph), a shift manager in Springfield, Va. – Berg first came to Starbucks four years ago, in part because of Howard Schultz and all he did to make Starbucks employees feel like true partners.

GALEN BERG: I just – I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

HSU: But Berg’s rosy vision took a hit early in the pandemic. Berg says Starbucks was slow to respond as stores around them closed.

BERG: We were still asking questions. Are we still here? What do we do? No one wore masks.

HSU: Starbucks then closed a bunch of locations for six weeks and paid workers during that time. But when stores reopened, things were tense. Claire Pachano (ph) was then working in a drive-thru. It was extremely busy. Still, Pachano says they were understaffed. She complained to her manager.

CLAIRE PACHANO: I was stressed, I was crying and I never cry at work.

HSU: She felt like no one was hearing her.

PACHANO: Like, nobody cared. For example, even when a customer walked in and refused to wear a mask and threatened to shoot up the store, we were ordered not to call the police.

HSU: Starbucks says that under no circumstances will an employee be told not to call law enforcement. In this case, the company says the police were not called as the customer left without incident. Workers were also unhappy to lose pandemic-related benefits – first hazard pay, then food and drink per diem, even as other COVID benefits were introduced. Then, last December, when workers at two Starbucks stores in Buffalo voted to unionize, Galen Berg perked up.

BERG: It was definitely once Buffalo voted, yeah, so I was like, okay. It is now our turn.

HSU: That sentiment swept through Starbucks stores across the country — nearly 200 demanded union votes. So far, ten have unionized. With the Springfield election next week, workers say their hours have been reduced. Many new hires have been made. There have been mandatory meetings where management tries to persuade them to vote, no. All of this infuriates workers and also attracts the attention of a group of Starbucks investors who have called on the company to shut down.

JONAS KRON: I think it’s really clear to everyone that they can’t carry on like it’s business as usual.

HSU: This is Jonas Kron from Trillium Asset Management.

KRON: When you have a company like Starbucks, it depends so much on the strength of its brand. Customers have the ability to go and go somewhere else quite easily.

HSU: In the past, Kron says, Starbucks’ policies and practices have made it a great company.

KRON: But the bar has been raised.

HSU: Workers want to feel empowered, he says. In Springfield, Galen Berg is optimistic that Howard Schultz will do the right thing.

BERG: I think he will try. I really hope so, at least.

HSU: With his return this week, they’ll find out soon. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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