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Schultz Broke Law When He Threatened Pro-Union Starbucks Worker, Judge Rules

Last year, Schultz told an employee, “If you’re not happy at Starbucks, you can go work for another company.”

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 29, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz broke federal labor law when he told a pro-union worker to quit and find employment elsewhere in a company-sponsored town hall last year, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge ruled on Friday.

In April of 2022, Madison “Mads” Hall, a former Starbucks barista at a store in Long Beach, California, was invited to a “collaborative session,” which was billed as an opportunity to meet with Starbucks’s upper management. Schultz, then the CEO — and “legendary leader” of the company, as the judge’s decision reads — made a surprise appearance at the meeting.

When asked about issues regarding the company, Hall raised Starbucks’s anti-union moves and expressed support for the union. In response, Schultz said, “I sense from you a little bit of anger towards the company, and I just want to know why. Why are you angry at Starbucks?”

After Hall raised the company’s record of illegal union busting, Schultz said that he was at the meeting “not to talk about a union issue.” He then said to Hall, “if you’re not happy at Starbucks, you can go work for another company.”

These statements were illegal, administrative law judge Brian D. Gee ruled, and constituted an unfair labor practice. This is the first time a judge has found Schultz himself to have violated labor laws during workers’ historic union drive.

“Schultz’ invitation to quit was far more than a suggestion as to how Hall could be a happier person,” as Starbucks had argued in the case, Gee wrote. “[R]ather, it was a chilling admonition that Hall’s exercise of protected speech was incompatible with continued employment at Starbucks.”

Gee ordered the company to post a notice of workers’ rights at its stores in Long Beach and hold a meeting with stores that had an employee present at the session with Schultz to read a notice of workers’ rights to workers. He also ordered the company to cease and desist from threatening employees by saying they should quit in response to union support and taking other similar actions that restrain workers’ rights.

Starbucks Workers United said that the decision — along with a sweeping ruling last month finding that the company illegally withheld raises from unionized and unionizing workers — shows the breadth of anti-union activity that the company has engaged in.

“Together, these decisions show that Starbucks’ historic anti-union campaign was directed from the top of the company, nationally coordinated, and designed to discourage workers from unionizing in multiple devastating ways,” the union wrote in a press release. NLRB judges have issued 32 judgments against the company so far, according to the union.

Hall also praised the ruling. “It’s vindicating to see an NLRB judge call out Howard Schultz and Starbucks for its vicious anti-union campaign,” Hall said in a statement. “What workers need is for Starbucks to come to the bargaining table and to negotiate in good faith — it’s time for Starbucks to put an end to their ongoing pattern of threatening and intimidating workers.”

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