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Buffalo Starbucks workers expect new interim CEO to ‘ramp up union-busting efforts’

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz
Gage Skidmore
Howard Schultz speaks at Arizona State University in January 2019. Schultz, who previously led Starbucks for over 20 years, will become interim CEO on April 4.

Starbucks will soon have a new leader atop the company, but Buffalo-area workers say they’re not expecting the coffee giant to deviate from its alleged anti-union behavior.

CEO Kevin Johnson will retire next month and be replaced by former CEO Howard Schultz on an interim basis, the company announced Wednesday. Johnson, 61, had been with Starbucks for 13 years and served the last five years as CEO.

“A year ago, I signaled to the Board that as the global pandemic neared an end, I would be considering retirement from Starbucks,” Johnson said in a statement. “I feel this is a natural bookend to my 13 years with the company.”

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson
Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announces his retirement in a video message posted to the company's website March 16, 2022.

Johnson had drawn the ire of Starbucks Workers United, the Buffalo-area workers who have led the unionization effort over the last six months. They often criticized him for the company’s alleged anti-union behavior, addressing him by his first name in statements to the media and on posters in their Buffalo office.

Last month, Buffalo workers filed 21 Unfair Labor Practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the company of intimidating and surveilling workers, hiring new workers to dilute the pro-union vote, and temporarily closing stores. The company has denied the allegations.

But on Tuesday, a group of 75 investors sent a letter to Johnson and Board Chair Mellody Hobson expressing concern about the company’s stance toward unionization and urging them to be neutral toward the union campaign.

Johnson’s retirement announcement coinciding with Wednesday's annual shareholder meeting may have been Starbucks’ way of blaming Johnson for the alleged union-busting activity, said Elmwood Avenue store barista Jaz Brisack. However, she believes that Schultz “has actually been the person orchestrating the union busting and calling the shots.”

Shultz, who led Starbucks from 1986 to 2000 and again from 2008 to 2017, has remained an influential voice within the company. He visited Buffalo in November to dissuade workers from unionizing. The event at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo hotel made headlines after Schultz invoked Holocaust prisoners sharing blankets in his speech.

Brisack said she expects Schultz to now repeat the same arguments he made in Buffalo.

Buffalo Starbucks workers address the media
Tom Dinki
Buffalo-area Starbucks workers speak with the media after the Elmwood Avenue and Genesee Street locations voted to become the first unionized stories in the U.S. Dec. 9, 2021.

“That Starbucks is so great, we're so ungrateful and that it's almost an insult to him personally for us to try to unionize,” she said. “We've made it clear from day one: This isn't a criticism. It's a way to actually grow with the company and challenge the status quo and do the things that it says and its own mission and value statement.”

Schultz, 68, is set to succeed Johnson on April 4. The company said in a statement that it expects to have a permanent CEO hired by the fall.

Starbucks Workers United is now redirecting its long-standing request for Johnson to sign a list of “fair election principals” to Schultz.

“I think it's very clear to all of us that Howard Schultz was brought in to ramp up union-busting efforts,” said Cassie Fleischer, a union leader who was terminated from the Elmwood Avenue store in Buffalo last month. “We hope that that's not the case, but based off everything that we've seen so far, that's what we're expecting.”

There are now six unionized Starbucks stores in the U.S., including five in the Buffalo area. Those stores are the Elmwood Avenue store, the Genesee Street store in Cheektowaga, the Walden Avenue store in Cheektowaga, the Sheridan Drive store in Amherst and Transit Road store in Depew.

Altogether, approximately 140 stores in 26 states have filed to hold union votes.

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