Starbucks, the retail coffee mega-chain, operates nearly 9,000 corporate-owned stores in the United States, and none of them are currently unionized. But that could all change within a matter of weeks.
Starbucks workers at three stores in the Buffalo, New York area are currently voting on whether to unionize, with the NLRB expected to count the ballots on December 9, and three more stores have filed for elections. It might not end there — an organizing drive is also now underway at Starbucks’ stores in Mesa, Arizona.
The company, meanwhile, is doing everything possible to crush the campaign. It tried to delay the union vote, and is holding captive audience meetings where management forces staffers to listen to anti-union propaganda. Starbucks is also sending workers — deemed “partners”—letters asking them to vote “no” on the union.
Some of the company’s clumsier union avoidance tactics have gone viral. The odd spectacle of senior managers descending on Buffalo-area stores to sweep floors was shared widely on Twitter. And a bungled presentation in the city by billionaire and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who analogized the workers’ situation with a Nazi concentration camp, did the company no favors.
But to truly understand the ferocity of Starbucks’ anti-union push, it’s important to look beyond management and to examine the company’s governing body: its board of directors. Corporate boards hire and fire the executives who lead the company. They set executive pay and incentives while overseeing company policies and representing shareholders. And Starbucks’ board is crammed with anti-union executives who represent corporations and industry groups that have spent millions lobbying to rollback labor rights. Some oversee business operations that have been tied to alleged workers’ rights violations.
Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor expert at Cornell University, told In These Times that boards set the tone for a company’s response to a unionization push.
“An overwhelming majority of corporations don’t just fight union drives, but they engage in aggressive, intensive illegal activity during the course of unionization,” she said. “And the board of directors isn’t just well aware of it, but they condone it. So it is important to understand who these people are that are condoning this activity.” She added that boards “measure the success of a corporation on its ability to stay union-free.”
An anti-union board
To start, take Mary Dillon, a board of directors member who runs the Starbucks committee that is responsible for setting executive pay at the company. Dillon is a hardened veteran of corporate America’s commanding heights. She is the former CEO and current Executive Chair of Ulta Beauty, the largest beauty retailer in the United States. She previously held top management or board roles at Target, US Cellular, McDonald’s and PepsiCo.
Fortune ranked Dillon among the “Most Powerful Women in Business” in 2020. Her power base is Chicago, where she chairs the Economic Club of Chicago, an elite business forum led by major corporations and law firms, and serves as a director of the Executives’ Club of Chicago, a business group composed of CEOs and other top Chicagoland executives.
Most importantly, perhaps, Dillon chairs the virulently anti-union Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), which describes itself as “the US trade association for leading retailers.” Its membership list is a rogues’ gallery of the most anti-union retailers, including Walmart, Dollar General, Home Depot, Target and Starbucks.
RILA spends millions lobbying against union and worker rights and has special hatred for the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, currently being pushed by progressive Democrats in Congress, which would be the most ambitious pro-union legislation in decades.
Alongside its lobbying operations, RILA directly supplies retailers with resources they need to suppress worker organizing. For example, it issues an annual report with IRI Consultants, a leading anti-union firm, that contains “the latest data on union organizing and membership across the nation,” labor law updates, and advice on how to resist unions.
RILA also bankrolls anti-union front groups and consultants. It’s the largest donor to the Job Creators Network (JCN), an anti-union organization co-founded by Bernie Marcus, the billionaire ex-head of Home Depot and a big Trump backer. JCN bankrolls the Center for Union Facts, headed by notorious anti-union consultant Rick Berman. RILA is also a major donor to the anti-union National Retail Federation.
As RILA chair and a member of Starbucks’ board, Mary Dillon is surely one of the country’s most prolific union busters. In addition, Dillon is also a director of KKR, one of the world’s largest and most ruthless private equity firms, notorious for its leveraged buyouts that destroy thousands of jobs.
Apple, for instance, is the most valuable corporation in the world. Starbucks board of directors member Isabel Ge Mahe runs Apple’s operations in China, where the company has faced numerous allegations of worker mistreatment throughout its supply chain, such as relying on forced labor of Uyghur workers from China’s Xinjiang Province and labor violations at its Foxconn supplier.
Microsoft Chair and CEO Satya Nadella and FedEx director Joshua Cooper Ramo are also Starbucks board members. Both Microsoft and FedEx have director seats with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most ferocious and well-funded groups in corporate America’s war on workers.
“The Chamber of Commerce plays a really central role in coordinating the business community’s opposition” to pro-labor legislation, said John Logan, an expert on the anti-union industry at San Francisco State University. “Nothing is more important [to the Chamber] than defeating any law that would strengthen collective labor rights.”
In total, at least eight of the 11 members of Starbucks’ board of directors, including CEO Kevin Johnson, have represented companies with records of resisting unions or worked with groups and companies that have faced serious allegations of workers rights’ violations.
Progressive image vs. union-busting reality
A board’s role during an organizing drive is not limited to setting the terms of the company’s anti-union offensive. Boards also serve PR functions that help craft a company’s brand. This is especially critical for a company like Starbucks, which consistently attempts to present itself as corporate America’s progressive face, even in the face of accusations of worker mistreatment.
One key player in the company’s recent PR blitz is Mellody Hobson, the chair of Starbucks’ board of directors. Hobson is a celebrity business leader that media outlets such as Vanity Fair and Variety have portrayed as a trailblazer. Hobson is currently the only Black woman board chair of a Fortune 500 company. She counts everyone from Oprah to the Obamas to Warren Buffett as friends and is married to billionaire Star Wars creator George Lucas.
Hobson has long promoted the need for greater corporate board diversity, and regularly invokes the language of fairness and equality in her many public talks. Progressive icon Bill Moyers officiated her wedding to Lucas and Hobson herself donates to many liberal causes. She’s also a trustee of major cultural institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
But there’s another side to Hobson. She’s a board director at JPMorgan Chase, the largest U.S. bank that has become synonymous with Wall Street greed and financing climate destruction. She’s held leadership positions in groups that represent the financial industry and Chicago’s wealthiest residents. And, as Starbucks board chair, she’s also the most powerful director of a company that’s currently leading one of the most high-profile union-busting efforts in the country.
“Usually if the company is deeply hostile to unions, that ideology — that position when it comes to resisting unions and maintaining unilateral control of the workplace — comes from the very top of the company,” said Logan.
Hobson has a long history with Starbucks. She’s sat on the board of directors since 2005. She can often be spotted with a Starbucks cup during her video interviews and counts herself as a “super user” customer. She’s also very close with Howard Schultz.
For decades, the top brass at Starbucks — including management and the board of directors — have wanted to have it both ways, projecting a worker-friendly environment while resisting calls for worker empowerment. They want customers to associate warm and progressive feelings with the company brand, and to be a leading example of corporate responsibility. On the other hand, Starbucks has long waged war against any unionization attempt by its “partners” who seek more democracy, voice and protections on the job.
Logan says that Starbucks workers attempting to unionize in Buffalo and elsewhere have a challenging road ahead, but if they emerge victorious, the example of their organizing win for other workers would be significant.
“If you see them winning — and then particularly if you see them negotiating a much better contract — it makes people think: ‘Whoa, there’s reason to believe that it’s worth my while taking that risk as well, because those people did it, and they won.’”
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Derek Seidman is a writer, educator and historian living in Buffalo, New York, and a researcher with LittleSis.org.