After a grand launch in February during Milan fashion week, with a musical performance by Lizzo, the presence of Anna Wintour and coverage in the New York Times, the new coffees with olive oil are leading to some headaches for Starbucks. A few weeks after their introduction in the U.S. (for now only in the Seattle, Los Angeles and New York markets), reports are beginning to filter in of sporadic cases of gastrointestinal discomfort after consuming the “Oleatos” (the company’s patented name). The combination of caffeine and oil can apparently produce a laxative effect that had not been accounted for by the Seattle giant’s team of “beverage developers.”
This is not the only belly ache that’s been keeping Howard Schultz up at night lately, the founder and at various times CEO of the caffeine giant. Last week, the multi-billionaire executive was called to testify before a congressional committee. On the stand, Schultz had to listen to a stern indictment by Bernie Sanders, head of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on what Sanders called the coffee company’s “ruthless anti-union campaign.”
Schultz is the coffee guru whose mass-marketed “optimized” coffee drinks built an empire and changed a nation’s food culture. But he is also the chief standard bearer of a hostility towards unions that unites the new economy and platform capitalism. Like Amazon, Google and other companies, Schultz expresses an increasingly explicit intolerance of unions, within a corporate culture that enforces internal loyalty and neoliberal faith. Schultz has spread such theories in books and numerous public speeches, organizing lobbies to fight bills that would facilitate the formation of unions in companies. Even more than Bezos and other peers, he has actively obstructed the unionization of his outlets, resorting to closing coffee shops rather than acceding to workers’ demands.
In the U.S., a prior vote by the workers in factories or establishments is required in order to formalize union representation and access the benefits of collective bargaining. To prevent this first step, Starbucks, like Amazon, has waged no-holds-barred campaigns aimed at dissuading its baristas from filling out union petitions.
Union organizing intensified in 2021 and 2022 in hundreds (of the more than 15,000) Starbucks locations all over America where employees filed petitions to form unions. The fight in Buffalo, New York, was particularly tough, where in December 2021 one location finally succeeded in unionizing. Since then, another 300 coffee shops have followed suit. However, the company has continued to adopt obstructionist tactics, closing dozens of unionized coffee shops, laying off pro-union employees, and dragging out the negotiating process to the point that no coffee shop has received an initial contract offer to this day.
Schultz has always maintained that he offers competitive pay and benefits without the need for “union interference,” a position that has led to legal measures passed against him by the government’s union authority (NLRB). A few weeks ago, an NLRB magistrate ruled that Starbucks was responsible for “egregious and widespread misconduct” against Buffalo workers who attempted to form a union, ordering the immediate reinstatement of illegally fired employees and the reopening of coffee shops that were shut down without justification. In the congressional hearing, Sanders struck an even more forceful tone.
“Are you aware that NLRB judges have ruled that Starbucks violated federal labor law over 100 times during the past 18 months? Far more than any other corporation in America,” thundered the Vermont senator. Schultz claimed that those were just “allegations” that “will be proven false.” Sanders continued: “Have you ever threatened, coerced, or intimidated a worker for supporting a union?” “I’ve had conversations that could have been interpreted in a different way than I intended,” replied Schultz. After the hearing, he not only refused to engage in good faith negotiations, as Sanders had asked him to do, but a few days later he fired Alexis Rizzo, the Starbucks employee who was the organizer of the first campaign in Buffalo. Rizzo announced that she will sue the company.
Meanwhile, last Wednesday, Schultz, whose personal fortune is estimated at $3 billion, lost another vote, this time of his company’s shareholders, who decided at their meeting to pay for a study on the company’s treatment of workers by a neutral commission. For now, the company is continuing its expansion and branding of coffees. The new branch in Rome’s Piazza Montecitorio is expected to open soon – and “Oleatos” will be on the menu.