Starbucks Tycoon Bullies the Baristas

Starbucks Tycoon Bullies the Baristas

CEO Howard Schultz doesn’t like unions. But he’s happy to coerce his low-paid workers into joining a phony austerity campaign.


Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

The billionaires peddling austerity have always insisted that they’re in it for the common man. A recent TV ad for Fix the Debt—the well-heeled group demanding that we cut tax rates and Social Security benefits—stars a teacher and a farmer. But Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz did his peers one better: conscripting countless low-wage workers into the austerity army. 

The day after Christmas, Schultz announced an unconventional effort to “use our company’s scale for good by sending a respectful and optimistic message to our elected officials.” The occasion: “the tremendously important, time-sensitive issue to fix the national debt.” The medium: for a couple of days, DC-area Starbucks “partners” (meaning workers) would write “Come Together” on customers’ cups. “Imagine the power of our partners and hundreds of thousands of customers each sharing a simple message, one cup at a time,” Schultz wrote on the Starbucks blog. He also plugged the Fix the Debt website and, for good measure, name-checked the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary. 

Days before the so-called New Year’s “fiscal cliff” deadline, the Starbucks stunt seized a decent chunk of media attention. Some celebrated its spunk; others slammed its seeming naïveté. A smaller number noted the moral bankruptcy of its premise: that the national debt is a crisis, and one the working class should sacrifice to fix. But in mainstream circles, there was little outrage over what was most outrageous about the Come Together campaign: Starbucks’ decision to draft its employees as a delivery system for austerity. 

Schultz’s use of hourly employees was both shrewd and deceptive. Logistics aside, a Come Together message inscribed by a billionaire CEO and printed on coffee cups could never pack the same punch as one that was handwritten by workers making $8-something an hour. Schultz’s blog post was quickly followed by a mass e-mail from Fix the Debt, bragging that “Baristas at Starbucks are showing their support for bipartisan solutions this week.” CEOs hawking “shared sacrifice” are a dime a dozen. A working-class seal of approval is much more valuable, even if—like so much in the American workplace—it’s coerced. (Starbucks assured CNN that workers could decline to participate. But not all who are drafted will risk becoming a conscientious objector.) 

As sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has observed, and Starbucks has unwittingly reminded us, the service sector is replete with “emotional labor”: not just physical production but interpersonal performance. Workers are paid not only to perform a task but to act out a part—from speaking from a company script, to smiling despite verbal abuse or physical pain, to urging that Congress embrace a deal that could imperil their retirement. 

The Come Together episode illustrates the rise of political coercion in the workplace. That trend drew rare attention last year with a series of stories about companies that told their employees whom to vote for (Koch Industries), tracked workers’ political donations (Murray Energy) or warned of layoffs if President Obama was re-elected (Westgate Resorts). In the Citizens United era, companies have even greater freedom to impose their politics on employees, from convening a mandatory meeting devoted to political “persuasion” to firing an employee for affixing the wrong candidate’s bumper sticker to her car. 

American law generally protects the freedom of bosses to force their politics on workers, but not the freedom of workers to take independent political action (even outside work) without being fired. Political scientist Corey Robin points out that this is a continuation of an old British common law principle: that the worker, wherever she goes, is an extension of her boss’s will. Rarely does that premise come into starker relief than it did in December, when Howard Schultz decided to send Congress a message using his own employees. 

Companies that flaunt this power too openly may risk public backlash. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that Starbucks deployed it in the service of an austerity push that, in much of mainstream media discourse, no longer even registers as “political,” let alone controversial. Four days after Schultz announced his Come Together plan, Meet the Press hosted five prominent commentators and President Obama, not one of whom disputed the need for Medicare and Social Security to go under the knife. 

What would break Schultz’s power to extract austerity mash notes from his employees? Unionization. A handful of Starbucks franchises in supermarkets or convention centers have negotiated union contracts, and (without formal collective bargaining) members of the Industrial Workers of the World have won wage increases and scheduling improvements by organizing at Starbucks in New York City and Chicago. But Starbucks, while cultivating a progressive image, is overwhelmingly nonunion and has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to remaining so. In 2009, the National Labor Relations Board found that Starbucks had illegally fired leaders of an IWW campaign in Minneapolis (the case is being reheard because the Supreme Court ruled that the NLRB lacked a quorum at the time). That same year, as organized labor pushed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, a law that would make it easier for workers to win union recognition, Schultz joined the CEOs of Whole Foods and Costco in vocal opposition, urging that lawmakers pass a toothless alternative instead. Mercifully, they kept that proposal off the coffee cups. 

If more Starbucks workers were organized, they’d have the power to tell Howard Schultz to scrawl his pithy insights out himself. That’s one form of “coming together” Starbucks won’t abide. 

Josh Eidelson blogs regularly at on Walmart vs. labor.

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