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Former Starbucks CEO uses Holocaust analogy to describe coffee company’s mission

Schultz said that the concentration camp story is a tale about humanity and that Starbucks has a long tradition of doing right by its employees.
Howard Schultz, former chief executive officer of Starbucks Corp., speaks in Washington on Feb. 14, 2019.
Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks Corp., speaks in Washington on Feb. 14, 2019.Alex Wroblewski / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is facing backlash from employees and on social media after he drew a comparison over the weekend between Holocaust prisoners and the coffee company’s mission.

His comments to workers came ahead of a unionization vote by some workers in Buffalo, New York.

In a video on Starbucks’ YouTube page, Schultz, who is Jewish, can be seen speaking passionately to employees Saturday. He refers to a story about Holocaust prisoners at concentration camps in Poland who had to share their limited resources. 

“Not everyone, but most people, shared their blanket with five other people,” Schultz says, adding that he was inspired to share his own “blanket” with five other people. “So much of that story is threaded into what we’ve tried to do at Starbucks — is share our blanket.”

The video and his comments were met with criticism on social media.

Schultz, who is chairman emeritus of Starbucks, has referred to the story in the past, saying it’s a tale about humanity. He said Starbucks has a long tradition of doing right by its employees, including offering health care benefits, college tuition reimbursement and equity in the company.

Starbucks closed some of its stores in the Buffalo area so workers could attend Schultz’s talk. While Schultz, the company’s largest individual shareholder, never directly addressed the issue of unionization, he made several appeals to workers to realize that Starbucks isn’t “a perfect company” that will make but insisted that the company will try to fix them and learn from them.

His presence is a sign of just how much effort Starbucks is putting into fighting the unionization push. Schultz, who considered a bid for president last year, was CEO of Starbucks from 1986 to 2000 and from 2008 to 2017. He is credited with helping the chain expand globally.

In fighting unionization, Schultz and Starbucks have said they are listening to employees and are striving to improve conditions. Last month, after the workers petitioned for the right to unionize, the company announced a new pay plan that included raises.

Workers seeking to unionize complain of insufficient training, staffing and pay increases. Starbucks didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The National Labor Relations Board is set to send ballots to workers at the three Buffalo locations Wednesday. Workers will have until Dec. 8 to vote on whether to align themselves with the Workers United Labor Union. None of the corporate-owned Starbucks locations in the U.S. are unionized; the vote would apply only to the three locations in Buffalo.

The unionization push comes amid broader labor unrest in the U.S. Nearly 100,000 workers from health care to Hollywood have challenged their working conditions, demanding higher wages and better benefits.

About 60,000 workers in Hollywood, California, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, are voting on a new contract after they narrowly avoided a strike. More than 24,000 health care workers at Kaiser Permanente are considering walking off the job, and more than 10,000 John Deere workers are on strike. Thousands of other workers, including Kellogg plant workers and Nabisco employees, have also fought back against what they say are untenable working conditions.