Michael Hiltzik, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, reviews the context of the drive for unions at Starbucks. it’s CEO, billionaire Howard Schultz, wants to portray the far-flung coffee shop empire as worker-friendly, and he is flatly opposed to unions. He insists that the unions bring an adversarial edge and downplays the likelihood that unions would mean higher wages and benefits at the cost of profit margins.

Hiltzik writes:

Many American consumer companies, including Amazon and McDonalds, have been dealing with a surging interest in unionization by their employees, spurred in part by the pandemic-driven recognition that their employers have consistently undervalued their contributions to business success.

But few such union drives are as high-profile as the one at Starbucks. One reason may be the company’s warm and comforting image and its efforts to project a friendly relationship between customers and workers, who are designated in company parlance as “partners.” That’s very much at odds with the image of an employer so cold to the welfare of its workers that they’re spurred to organize.

Another may be the rapidity of the unionization drive’s expansion, which began with pro-union votes at three Buffalo-area stores. Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union that is organizing union votes, says 223 Starbucks locations in 31 states have filed for votes with the NLRB.

That’s a fraction of the roughly 9,000 company-operated stores in the U.S., but reports of new successful votes are streaming in on virtually a daily basis. Five stores in the Richmond, Va., area voted for unions by overwhelming margins on April 19 alone, and workers at the company’s Seattle Reserve Roastery, a flagship tourist draw in Starbucks’ home city, announced a successful vote on April 21.

Workers United says 28 Starbucks stores have now voted to unionize, up from nine that had done so as of April 1.

“Because Starbucks is a front-facing company considered ‘essential,’” Workers United organizing chief Richard Minter says, “the pandemic exacerbated the employer-employee relationship. The partners were left in the crosshairs without the resources necessary to handle what was happening, without the right precautions and protocols that allowed them to feel safe.”

The company has mounted a fierce counterattack against the organizing drive. In videotaped town hall presentations, written communications to workers and managers, and in meetings with workers around the country, Schultz has repeatedly characterized unions as a menace to the company’s economics and future.

“Outside labor unions are attempting to sell a very different view of what Starbucks should be,” he wrote in an open letter posted on the company’s website April 10.

Employees “supporting unionization are colluding with outside union forces,” he wrote. “The critical point is that I do not believe conflict, division and dissension — which has been a focus of union organizing — benefits Starbucks or our partners…”

The union threat, Shultz said in a town hall meeting shortly after his reappointment as CEO, extends beyond Starbucks: “Companies throughout the country [are] being assaulted in many ways by the threat of unionization.”

Starbucks, in an anti-union FAQ posted on its website, warns that “unions get their revenue from dues, which could come out of your pay each week or month.” It says, “unions use dues to pay for their office overhead, staff salaries and other expenses,” though it doesn’t mention the expense of negotiating contracts and enforcing their provisions, which are of course the chief duties of unions.

The company also has hired the law firm of Littler Mendelson, which boasts of its skill at guiding companies “in developing and initiating strategies that lawfully avoid unions.” These include advising management on “precise and compliant messaging to employees … that may include informational signs and posters, home letters, meeting materials, testimonial videos, social media postings, handouts and campaign websites.”

Followers of labor-management relations will recognize that Schultz’s words come directly out of the canonical corporate anti-union playbook:

Paint the unions as “outsiders.” Imply that their only goal is to add members. Say they’ll disrupt the smooth working of the company or even drive it out of business. Say they’ll make it impossible for workers to deal directly with management. Talk about how much money workers will lose to dues…

Starbucks is plainly aware of the complaints about pay and working conditions that are fueling the organizing drive. The company has displayed on its website a poster it says reflects “issues we have been hearing from partners…”

Starbucks is not new to the arena of fraught labor relations. Its animosity toward unions dates back to Schultz’s 1987 acquisition of the company, then a local chain of coffee spots in Seattle. At that time, Starbucks employees were represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. Former workers say Schultz promised to honor the UFCW contract but almost immediately tried to renegotiate it.

It’s conceivable that Schultz honestly sees himself as the hand that can improve Starbucks’ relationship with its workers, and that unions will only get in the way. He’s adept at projecting sincerity, as when he says in an employee video of the worker meetings that “it was difficult and emotional at times to hear the challenges and the issues that partners are facing.”

Unlike some other companies, Starbucks has not turned a cold shoulder to unions that have been voted in at its stores; Workers United says the company has begun to meet with union representatives at two of the Buffalo stores that touched off the organizing trend, though they have not reached contracts.

The real question is whether the company will draw the right lessons from the union organizing drive: that unions and management can be partners, not invariably adversaries, that demonizing unions won’t improve labor relations, and that workers’ interest in unionization doesn’t mean they hate the company.