It’s a classic generation gap trope. “Kids these days just don’t know how good they have it” is a sentiment likely first expressed by the caveman who invented the wheel to the younger generation spoiled by the then-newfangled technology. Hearing a similar complaint coming from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, however, says more about the imbalance of power structure in late-stage capitalism than about any specifically generational conflict.
According to a new article by Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria at Popular.info, Schultz was quoted in a New York Times interview saying that “he believes employees at Starbucks’ stores are pushing for unionization and better working conditions ‘primarily because Gen Z has a different view of the world.’ These young employees, Schultz suggested, don’t realize how good they already have it.”
Schultz’s concerns about the apparently ungrateful outlook of the young baristas who pump out over-priced caffeinated beverages to Starbucks customers — and make his business massively successful with $7.64 billion in revenue and $674.5 million in net income according to the company’s latest quarterly financials — come as “over the last seven months, 152 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize across 30 states,” according to Legum and Zekeria.
With the unionization push by its employees, Schultz and Starbucks management have resorted to the same type of union-busting measures that its fellow Seattle-area compatriots at Amazon have used to fight their own unionization threat.
Schultz naturally denies being anti-union as he spouts his own version of anti-union propaganda.
“’I’m not anti-union, but the history of unions is based on the fact that companies in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s abused their people,’ Schultz said during the interview. ‘We’re not in a coal mining business; we’re not abusing our people.’ Schultz thinks people should focus on the benefits Starbucks provides to employees, like a free subscription to Spotify, which costs $10 per month,” the Popular.info article explains.
Perhaps the millennials that Schultze considers so lacking in historical perspective when it comes to labor conditions would rather be able to pay their rent than stream the latest Drake banger.
Legum and Zekeria point out the real differences in the “equitable balance between profitability, executive compensation, and worker pay” between the mid-20th century labor market that Schultz grew up in and the reality of the workers’ economy today.
“In 1965, for example, American CEOs made 15 times more than the average worker. Today, the CEO-to-worker pay gap at America’s largest low-wage employers like Starbucks is closer to 670 to 1, according to a report published this month by the Institute for Policy Studies.”
“The pay ratio at Starbucks is even more extreme. Starbucks’ former CEO, Kevin Johnson, raked in $20.4 million in 2021 –– 1,579 times more than what the typical Starbucks worker took home. The explosion in CEO pay began about 40 years ago. During that time, CEOs have not become significantly more skilled or productive. Rather, CEOs have convinced corporate boards to pay workers less and pay executives more,” the article reminds us.
This increase in income disparity between the executive-level employees and the equivalents of Starbucks’ lowly Frappuccino blender paralleled the decline of union membership in the United States from about one-third of the workforce in the 1950s to only around 10% today.
“’The erosion of collective bargaining is the second largest factor that suppressed wage growth and fueled wage inequality over the last four decades,’ the Economic Policy Institute reports.”
Legum and Zekeria go on to detail Schultz’s admission that he returned to his CEO role at Starbucks at least partially to help fight the unionization effort which federal law requires the company to “bargain in good faith about wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.”
Schultz’s definitive statement that he would never see himself embracing a union at Starbucks, made in his interview with The New York Times, could be interpreted as violating federal law that prohibits employers from acts that:
“‘interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees’ considering whether to exercise their right to form a union. Employers can express their opposition to unionization but cannot ‘convey the message that selecting a union would be futile.'”
I urge everyone to read the original Popular.info article here to get more details of how Howard Schultz’s generational alienation and his anti-union efforts have played out with the employees at Starbucks stores that are attempting to organize their union representation.
Suffice it to say here that many of the activities that Schultz and Starbucks are currently using in their efforts to fight against these unionization efforts skirt the edges of unfair labor practices and have been called out by union organizers as violating National Labor Relations Board regulations.
That’s a corporate practice that has changed little over the ensuing generations since the 1950s.
Vinnie Longobardo is the Managing Editor of Occupy Democrats. He's a 35-year veteran of the TV, mobile & internet industries, specializing in start-ups and the international media business. His passions are politics, music, and art.