Starbucks’ corporate pushes back on return to office



Dozens of white-collar Starbucks Corp. employees and managers have signed an open letter protesting the company’s return-to-office mandate and its alleged union-busting, opening a new front in the battle over the avowedly progressive coffee chain’s treatment of its staff.

“We love Starbucks, but these actions are fracturing trust in Starbucks leadership,” the workers wrote in their letter, which was sent to senior executives and board members and will be posted on a website Wednesday. “Morale is at an all-time low, and the brand reputation and financial value of this publicly traded company are at risk.” Both violating baristas’ unionization rights, and subjecting white-collar staff to an abrupt return-to-office mandate, the letter argues, reflect the same problem: “Not listening to partners.”

“We believe in Starbucks, we believe in its core values, and we call for a return to those values,” the white collar staffers wrote.

The collective activism by headquarters staff adds pressure on incoming Chief Executive Officer Laxman Narasimhan to resolve the bitter dispute with Starbucks Workers United, the labor group which last year organized a few hundred of the chain’s 9,000 corporate-run US locations. It could also be a precursor to eventual unionization efforts by white-collar Starbucks staff themselves, who argue the company has violated the values that are supposed to set it apart.

Starbucks did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company has repeatedly denied violating labor laws and said that all claims of anti-union activity there are “categorically false.” 

The letter was signed by about four dozen white-collar workers, who organizers said also represent others who withheld their names due to fear of retaliation. Starbucks employs about 258,000 people in the US, with 248,000 of those at its company-operated stores, according to data released by the company. The remainder work in corporate support, store development, roasting, manufacturing, warehousing and distribution. 

In January, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz sent a memo requiring workers within commuting distance to return to the office three days a week. He told white-collar staff that baristas “are asking us to do the transformative work that I believe can only be done effectively when we are physically together.”  

Employees say their protest letter emerged from online discussions over the past couple months that were triggered in part by Schultz’s January email. It also reflects long-running frustration by some white-collar staff with Starbucks’s response to the union campaign, which US labor board prosecutors have alleged included illegal threats and terminations of around 50 activists. Workers United barista-activists and organizers have been advising the white-collar workers’ nascent efforts.

Starbucks’s business appears largely unaffected by worker morale and the union fight: The coffee chain’s results have been strong in recent quarters, excluding China, where a Covid outbreak following the end of restrictions dented sales. North American consumers have proven willing so far to fork over more for their lattes and frappuccinos, while transactions have also climbed. The shares are up about 3% this year, slightly trailing the gain of the S&P 500 Index.

The workers behind the letter say the company’s anti-union efforts punish baristas who “challenge the status quo,” while arguing the return-to-office mandate harms productivity, morale, accessibility and sustainability.

“After Howard issued his edict, I definitely did not feel good working for Starbucks any more — it felt like I am working for a dictator,” said Starbucks app developer Peter de Jesus, one of the employees who signed the letter. “I feel like this is not the Starbucks that I signed on for.” 

De Jesus said he hopes the letter will help show more white-collar coworkers that they aren’t alone in feeling unheard by management. “A lot of people just want to have their grievances and their demands aired, and hope for change,” he said. “If it doesn’t lead to any meaningful change, then the next step is obviously to think about possibly unionizing.”

Manager Participation

The letter’s organizers and signatories include some managers, whose workplace advocacy comes with particular risk. Federal labor law guarantees most employees the right to take collective action about their working conditions, including unionization efforts. But that law excludes managers, instead leaving executives with sweeping authority to demand that they toe the company line. 

“As a general matter, supervisors and managers have no rights under this law,” said former National Labor Relations Board member Wilma Liebman, who served as chair of the federal agency under President Barack Obama.

While companies are largely free to fire managers for complaining about working conditions, retaliation against them can still be illegal if it is done to interfere with hourly employees’ freedom to organize, Liebman said. The labor board has ruled, for example, that it’s illegal to fire managers for refusing to engage in illegal conduct. 

The employees behind the letter said that they hoped coming forward as a group would deter punitive measures against them. They also seek to help change the company’s course in ways that recent judges’ rulings and lawmakers’ letters condemning alleged union-busting have not. 

See also: Starbucks stands firm in union battle amid rising government pressure

“A lot of us are taking a stand in the hopes that the more people that take a stand, the less we have to worry about retaliation,” said engineering manager Cyril Bouanna, who works on tools including Starbucks’s mobile phone app.

The letter follows an internal survey last year that showed corporate staff’s faith in the company’s ethics and social impact fell to historic lows amid the union fight and return-to-office policies. Staff at companies such as Amazon.com Inc. and Walt Disney Co. have also pushed back against orders to return to the office after lengthy periods of remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

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