In an attempt to connect with workers who are facing a union vote at three Starbucks locations in and around Buffalo, New York, Howard Schultz — the company’s largest individual shareholder, former chief executive, and someone who, like me, decided not to run for president in 2020 — reportedly shared a heartwarming story about the Holocaust on Saturday. Starbucks closed stores in the area early that day so that workers could voluntarily attend a talk by Schultz, during which he danced around the topic of the unionization effort with vague statements such as “We’re not a perfect company” and “Mistakes are made. We learn from them, and we try and fix them,” the New York Times reports.
But — oh, right, the Holocaust stuff. Times labor reporter Noam Scheiber was kind enough to share the whole bit, as excerpted from a transcript of the talk that Starbucks provided:
Many years ago, I took a trip to Israel and I met this very wise, pious, religious man. He taught me many lessons not about religion, but about life, and morality, and honor. I will tell you two stories, two experiences I had with him. I hope it resonates with you. I’m Jewish, but this isn’t about being Jewish, not at all. It’s about humanity.
The first story is, he says to me that when people in Germany and Poland were sent to the concentration camps, they were thrown into rail cars and sometimes the journey was 8 hours, 10 hours, 15 hours, no light, no water, no food. When they arrived at the camps, the rail cars were slammed open. You could hear that metal door just right against the cold weather. Men were separated from women and women were separated from children. And one person for every 6 was given a blanket. One blanket for every 6 people. And the person who got the blanket had to decide what to do with this blanket that I had for myself. And not everyone, but most people, most people shared their blanket with 5 other people. And the rabbi says to me, take a blanket and go share it with 5 other people. And so much of that story is threaded into what we have tried to do at Starbucks, is share our blanket.
The talk took place in concert with an open letter from Schultz to all U.S. Starbucks workers, posted on the coffee chain’s website, that also does not contain the word “union” (or, to be fair, “Holocaust”) even once. Instead, Schultz touts the company’s values and the benefits that Starbucks provides its staff. He also spouts classic anti-union rhetoric couched in guilt-tripping fluff, like the all-time hit, “No partner has ever needed to have a representative seek to obtain things we all have as partners as Starbucks. And I am saddened and concerned to hear anyone thinks that is needed now.”
According to reports, this is all pretty much in line with the union-busting stance that Starbucks has taken since workers at three Buffalo stores announced in August that they were organizing under Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, and filed petitions asking the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to hold union elections. While the elections, which will kick off on Wednesday, only involve approximately 100 employees — just a fraction of the workforce employed at Starbucks’s 8,000+ corporate-owned domestic locations — this could stand to be a huge labor victory if successful, as previous attempts to unionize the coffee giant’s workers in the U.S. have been quashed or failed to gain momentum.
Pro-union Starbucks workers have cited their desire for higher wages commensurate with seniority, improved working conditions and protections, and more of a say in a company that has profited off of employees’ labor, especially during the pandemic, when service and hospitality workers have faced increased risk every day on the job.
With so much at stake, Starbucks, which normally promotes its progressive image and practices, has pulled out all the stops in trying to signal “JUST SAY NO TO UNIONIZING.” So far, the company has reportedly dispatched out-of-state managers and executives to hang around in stores around Buffalo, tried to argue (unsuccessfully) that workers at all 20 Buffalo-area locations be made to take part in the election instead of allowing the stores to vote individually (the latter of which is typically favored by union organizers), held anti-union meetings, temporarily shut down some locations, packed stores with new hires or transferred workers who could potentially dilute the original pro-union employees’ votes in an election, and filed a motion to delay the mailing of ballots for the upcoming union election. All of which would appear to go against the NLRB’s doctrine of “laboratory conditions,” under which union elections should take place in an atmosphere that does not infringe, whether through intimidation or pressure, upon the workers’ ability to vote freely.
In hindsight, maybe Schultz should have realized how stupid it was to recite his Holocaust blanket parable because the natural response to that is: If sharing a blanket is so essential to the core of Starbucks, then it’s time for the company to hand over that fuzzy-wuzzy bedtime throw.