Howard Schultz: Starbucks is fighting for the “hearts and minds” of workers

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After six years of retirement, Howard Schultz returned to the top job at Starbucks in April — this time to try to remedy mounting employee unrest at the company as it resists unionization sweeping the nation.

He’s also back because he says the country is facing a “crisis of capitalism,” and he believes leadership is needed to “reinvent the role and responsibilities of public corporations,” he told DealBook DC on Thursday -New York Times Policy Forum.

These excerpts have been edited and shortened for clarity.

I have come back to reinvent the role and responsibilities of a public company at a time when there is a cultural and political shift in relation to the crisis of capitalism – the needs and demands of the worker in a company today.

I don’t want to be critical, but I must honestly say that in many ways the government has left people behind. If you call thousands of people who work for a paycheck today and you ask them about economic mobility and specifically about a country’s promise, more often than not they will say it’s not available to me. And unfortunately if you ask people who are black or brown they will say without question that for the most part it’s unavailable to me.

Thinking back, Starbucks created comprehensive health insurance for our employees 25 years before the Affordable Care Act. Equity in the form of stock options for everyone, including part-time employees. Free tuition. We can go on and on, but the truth is that as good as they are and were, these perks aren’t good enough for today’s worker, mostly because Gen Z has a different perspective on the world. And also because the government hasn’t offered them a path they think they deserve.

Unfortunately, Starbucks happens to be the proxy for what is happening. We’re right in the middle. If a company as progressive as Starbucks, which has done so much and is ranked 100th percentile across our industry for benefit to our employees, can be threatened by a third party, it means any company in America can do it. Well, I’ve said publicly that I’m not anti-union, but the history of unions is based on the fact that companies in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s abused their workers. We are not a coal mining company; we don’t abuse our people.

But the widespread problem in the country is that corporations are not doing enough and the corporation is the enemy.

We don’t believe that a third party should lead our people. And so we find ourselves in a battle for the hearts and minds of our people.

Building a great, enduring business is all about one thing – the currency of trust.

As I look at gas prices at $6 and $7 per gallon, we are on a collision course with time as to how long the American consumer – the American family – can continue to spend at current levels. So it’s difficult to be optimistic unless there is a plan to bring inflation under control.

Russia is an enemy of America, period. In my view, China is a tough competitor.

That we’re diplomatically rattling back and forth between China and the US is so unhealthy. It’s so against what the world needs.

With the $360 billion in tariffs Trump has imposed, I’m puzzled as to why the President of the United States isn’t lifting those tariffs today.

Just in the last few months, we have three ongoing significant problems. We have gun violence and the situation in Uvalde and Buffalo. We have discussed the upcoming situation with the Supreme Court regarding Roe v. Calf. And we have the constant problem of immigration. These three issues concern our associates, and I promise you they will look to Starbucks and Starbucks leaders to advocate for what they believe aligns with our company’s values ​​and guiding principles.

It can’t be comfortable. It can’t be about calling the cash register.

In the world we live in, no company, no CEO can hide. Everyone knows everything. Anything you say publicly or privately is out there. So let’s make sure you stand up for the truth.

If you ask our folks what are the top two or three benefits Starbucks offers, Spotify is number 1. That’s it. The second is Lyra Health and that is mental health that we provide to our employees.

We serve 100 million people at Starbucks and there is a safety issue in our stores related to people using our stores as public restrooms and we need to provide a safe environment for our employees and our customers. And the mental health crisis in the country is serious, acute and getting worse.

Today we went to a Starbucks community store in Anacostia, five miles from here, a community that is sadly symbolic of communities across the country that are being disenfranchised and left behind. And this is where Starbucks is building a community store. Now we had a round table discussion with the manager and other people and we were told that today from 12pm to 6pm – every day – there is no one on the street. Why? Because people are afraid their children will be shot – five miles from the White House.

I think we need to educate our people better. We need to strengthen our supplies and keep our people safe. I don’t know if we can leave our bathrooms open.

Starbucks is trying to solve a problem and address a problem that is the responsibility of government.

Despite everything I’ve tried, I’ve been unsuccessful in getting our people back to work. I begged her. I said I’ll get on my knees. I do push ups. Whatever you want. Come back. No, they’re not coming back to the level I want them to be. And you know, we’re a very collaborative, creative group. I realize that I am an old school person and that this is a different generation. I’m in the office at 7am and leave at 7pm. I’m trying to set an example. I think people will come back two to three days a week and that’s the way it is. But the thing I’m evaluating is how high is the productivity? And you know, it seems people are working from home.

What do you think? Is Starbucks a proxy for what’s happening in America? Let us know: dealbook@nytimes.com.

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