Brewing at Starbucks

The Working Catholic: No Contract, Yet by Bill Droel

In recent times employees for some well-known companies have voted for a union at their store or warehouse. These apparent employee victories do not, however, signal improved labor relations in our country.
It is difficult for employees to achieve a pro-union vote. The parent company retains union-busting lawyers and consultants who, in round one, teach executives and branch managers how to disrupt an organizing effort by making side promises to a few quiet workers, discrediting the leaders, telling the public that costs will increase and more.
In round two (after a pro-union vote) the local manager might continue to intimidate employees with threats of layoffs and decreased benefits. Meanwhile the company challenges the vote. When the company loses its challenge, it proceeds to appeal the decision. More months go by.
In round three the paid negotiators for the company move “with spectacular slowness,” reports Steven Greenhouse for The New Republic (2/24). They pick an out-of-state meeting place. They ridicule the thoughts of the unpaid employee team. They take long lunches and often break-off negotiations for weeks or months at a time. The goal is to wear down the employee team and to discourage their fellow workers.
It was December 2021 when baristas at a Starbucks in Buffalo voted for the first-ever union at that company, Starbucks Workers United (2495 Main St. #556, Buffalo, NY 14214; There is no contract as yet in Buffalo. About 30% of newly formed unions have no contract even after three years, Greenhouse details.
Why does Starbucks invest in expensive union-busting lawyers and consultants over one, small outlet near Lake Erie? “Because reaching a good contract will obviously provide enormous incentives for workers in their nonunion stores to organize,” Greenhouse explains. Yet knowing of the delays in Buffalo, baristas in 385 Starbucks shops around the country have recently voted for a union. By the way, Starbucks can afford its lawyers. Its cash registers ring up more than $30billion per year. Profit is up less than Starbucks would like—an increase of about only $2.6billion per annum. Starbucks says its slow profit performance is due to the raises it gives employees. (Those raises can be interpreted as another tactic to stare off unions.)
Howard Schultz served as CEO of Starbucks for 14 years, retiring in 2000. He came back for nine more years at the helm. After a second retirement, he came back once again for two more years, leaving the position in April 2023. Schultz has a net worth of about $5billion. He owns about 2% of Starbucks.
Schultz is a prominent neoliberal. He is big on individual free choice, though free choice doesn’t seem to include choosing a union. “I was convinced that under my leadership, employees would come to realize that I would listen to their concerns. If they had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union,” Schultz says.
Among its presumptions, the neoliberal “ideology holds that both parties to an employment contract hold equal power and can easily walk away,” writes Anthony Annett for Commonweal (1/24). The presumption assumes that “if a worker feels mistreated, she can always quit and find another job.”
Catholicism values freedom, but “the notion that employers and employees enjoy equal power” is nonsense, Annett writes. He provides references. For example, Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903) explains the principle of a just wage and notes that if through necessity or fear of a worse evil, an employee accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will give no better, the worker is a victim of force and injustice. (On the Condition of Workers #34, 1891)
Our 2024 Catholic Compendium of the Social Doctrine puts it thus: “The simple agreement between employee and employer with regard to the amount of pay to be received is not sufficient for the agreed upon salary to qualify as a just wage.” In Annett’s words, “Mutual consent alone does not guarantee a fair contract.”
What can be done to make organizing and negotiating at Starbucks and other places efficient and just? Some suggest that the technicality of organizing store-by-store give way to a company-wide vote on a union. Catholicism proposes the industry council plan (what in Germany is called co-determinism) in which a quasi-legal body of representatives of executives, employees, consumers and government set some sector-wide standards. Another idea is currently banging around our Congress. The PRO Act (Protecting the Right to Organize), among its reforms, might include a penalty for employers who unnecessarily stall negations with a new union. The bill was first introduced and passed in the House in May 2020. Its latest version (HR #20), introduced in February 2023, awaits proper voting.
Readers of this column might sign a pledge of solidarity on the website of Starbucks United ( And why not freely choose another coffee shop until Starbucks acts in good faith?
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free newsletter on faith and work.