Former Starbucks CEO draws parallels between workers and Holocaust prisoners before pivotal union vote

Howard Schultz shares story about Nazi concentration camps in meeting with workers ahead of historic union election opposed by coffee giant

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 09 November 2021 17:36 GMT
Former Starbucks CEO invokes Holocaust before pivotal union vote
Leer en Español

In a meeting with Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York days before they cast their ballots in a historic union campaign, the company’s former CEO and largest shareholder Howard Schultz drew parallels between the coffee giant’s work culture and the experiences of Holocaust prisoners in rail cars sharing a blanket.

He said a rabbi shared a story with him during a trip to Israel, noting that “one person for every six was given a blanket” in rail cars headed to Nazi concentration camps.

“And the person who got the blanket had to decide what to do with this blanket,” said Mr Schultz – who identified himself as Jewish before telling the story –  according to video and transcript of the 45-minute meeting on 6 November first reported by Vice.

“Not everyone but most people, most people, shared their blanket with five other people,” he said. “The rabbi says to me, ‘Take your blanket and go share it with five other people.’ So much of that story is threaded into what we have tried to do at Starbucks.”

If a union vote is successful, three stores in the Buffalo area will be the first among Starbucks’ 8,000 company-owned stores to unionise, joining a part of the Service Employees International Union, and marking a landmark labour victory as thousands of workers across the US join strikes for better wages and working conditions or to push for union membership.

Starbucks closed area stores to invite workers to a voluntary talk from Mr Schultz – who mulled a run for president in 2020 – at a local hotel. He did not explicitly mention the union campaign but referenced company benefits and learning from “mistakes” throughout the company’s history.

“We’re not a perfect company,” he said. “Mistakes are made. We learn from them, and we try and fix them.”

In an accompanying statement, he said “what the leadership team has done in Buffalo is what we have always done. We listen. We learn. We get better together. No partner has ever needed to have a representative seek to obtain things we all have as partners at Starbucks. And I am saddened and concerned to hear anyone thinks that is needed now.”

A spokesperson for Starbucks told Vice that Mr Schultz told the blanket story in a March 2016 speech to shareholders.

In a filing with the National Labor Relations Board, the union campaign accusing the company of “engaging in a campaign of threats, intimidation, surveillance, solicitation of grievances and the closing of facilities” ahead of the election.

Starbucks, which rejects the union effort, said in a statement that the company’s success “has come from our working directly together as partners, without a third party between us.”

“We remain focused on supporting our partners as well as maintaining open, transparent and direct conversations throughout the process,” the statement said.

The company reported record fourth quarter revenue of $8.1bn last month and has announced a $1bn investment in raising worker pay, with starting hourly wages set at $15.

Ballots are scheduled to be sent to workers at the three stores on 10 November and are due by 8 December; each store will hold separate elections, meaning a simple majority at one location could determine their union membership.

A live vote count will be held on 9 December.

Starbucks has appealed to the labour board for an “immediate stay” to halt the mailing of ballots.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in