Leader as Father… or Father Knows Best

Howard Schultz is among the greatest corporate leaders of our time. Founder and, for years, chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Starbucks Coffee Company, he more than anyone else can claim credit for what became a coffee culture not just in the United States but worldwide. For his efforts Schultz has been well rewarded. He ranks among the wealthiest Americans, with an estimated worth of well over $4 billion.

One of Schultz’s particular points of pride has always been his ostensible concern for those in his employ. In his 2011 book titled, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul, he referred, as he always did, to Starbucks’ workers as “partners.” And he pointed repeatedly to how he cared for his partners, how he fostered a company culture in which they felt valued. When partners “feel proud of our company – because of their trust in the company, because of our values, because of how they are treated, because of how they treat others, because of our ethical practices – they willingly elevate the experience of each other and customers, one cup at a time.”   

But as it turned out, when some of Schultz’s “partners” wanted to extricate themselves from his clutch – wanted to free themselves from an employer they did not totally trust – he was not happy. The beneficent leader was not happy in the least with his recalcitrant followers.

Schultz is now formally retired from Starbucks. But he remains one of the company’s largest shareholders – and a looming presence. When it became clear that Starbucks baristas in Buffalo were hellbent on forming a union, Schultz swung into action. He did what he could to stop them striking out on their own.

The media has long seen Starbucks as an enlightened employer. Which for years, in some ways, it was. Still, whenever it came to collective bargaining, whenever Schultz’s “partners” wanted a measure of independence, the company was antipathetic, paternalistic. What Starbucks all along had really wanted, what Schultz all along had really wanted, were not “partners” but junior partners.

Starbucks did what it could to dissuade its Buffalo baristas from forming the first labor union at any of its American cafes. So did Schultz, who went so far as to invoke the Holocaust in arguing against unionization. (“Only a small portion of prisoners in German concentration camps received blankets,” Schultz told Buffalo-area employees, “but often shared them with fellow prisoners. What we have tried to do at Starbucks is share our blanket.”) All to no avail. As one barista activist put it this week, exulting in the vote to unionize, “We’ve done it, despite everything the company has thrown at us.”

Imagine that. Daddy’s aged out, the kids are grown up, and some decided to leave the nest.

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