Starbucks union draws fire for its business affiliations, signaling an escalation of hostilities

An industry group is running ads that bash the organizers as being hypocrites and capitalists with little true respect for progressive causes.
A new "education campaign" accuses the group organizing Starbucks of not being forthcoming. / Photo: Shutterstock

The gloves have come off in the restaurant industry’s struggle to halt organized labor’s infiltration of the business.

A full-page advertisement in Monday’s New York Times accuses the union group with the greatest recent success of secretly supporting the sorts of businesses its newfound members might loathe. The spot states that Workers United holds the largest stake in a bank that backs tobacco companies, oil drillers, prisons and even tear-gas manufacturers.

“Workers United is organizing baristas across the country, appealing to workers’ progressive values,” states the ad, referring to Workers United’s success in organizing Starbucks and about a half-dozen small coffee chains. “But the union has an alter ego: It’s the majority owner of Amalgamated Bank.”

The ad is headlined, “Union Organizing With An Extra Shot of Hypocrisy.”  The statement appears above what looks like a Starbucks cup, though no logo is shown.

A Workers United affiliate called Starbucks Workers United has succeeded in organizing nearly 300 Starbucks units, with a handful of other stores waiting to vote.

Workers United, in turn, is funded in part by Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, the nation’s second largest union overall and the largest organized group in the hospitality business.

The swipe at Workers United was placed by The Center for Union Facts, or CUF, a nonprofit group operated by Berman & Co., the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying shop known for its hard-knuckled messaging on behalf of the restaurant industry. The group is funded by donors, whom a principal of the firm declined to identify.

“Like most nonprofits, CUF does not disclose its donors for privacy reasons, and as allowed by the IRS,” Michael Saltsman said in an email to Restaurant Business.

He noted that the ad is the first step in a $1 million “education campaign” about Workers United’s alleged hypocrisy.

As part of that campaign, CUF issued a 31-page report, “Progressive Posers: Workers United and a History of Hypocritical Investments.”

The white paper explains that the SEIU holds a 40% interest in Amalgamated Bank, which it says was formed by a predecessor of Workers United, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, in 1923. The report said that Workers United has had that financial interest ever since.  Amalgamated positions itself as a progressive and socially conscious bank. befitting its union connection.

Yet the report goes on to say that Amalgamated has $700 million invested in “fossil fuel-based companies, $70 million in tobacco producers and weapons manufacturers, and $10 million in private prison and crowd-control concerns.”

The mentions seem intended to startle progressive-minded members and supporters of Workers United. Many observers have attributed the union’s success in organizing coffee-chain workers to the baristas’ youthful idealism and social-mindedness.

A representative of SEIU did not respond by the time of this posting to a request for comment on the ad and the CUF’s assertions.

SEIU, Workers United and Starbucks Workers United have accused Starbucks of union-busting, or ignoring the federal rules on dealing with a unionization drive. The groups have formally accused the chain of such activities as firing employees with union sympathies and closing stores before they could vote to unionize.

The Times ad appeared two days before former interim CEO Howard Schultz is scheduled to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Chairman Bernie Sanders has indicated that he intends to press Schultz for an accounting of how Starbucks has reacted to Starbucks Workers United’s organizing efforts.

The ad is part of a campaign CUF is undertaking on behalf of its unidentified donors.

Early in those efforts, Schultz assumed the duties of Starbucks CEO after the person in the position, Kevin Johnson, announced that he was suddenly retiring.

Schultz surrendered the top job last week to Laxman Narasimhan, a former executive of the cleaning-supplies company that makes Formula 409.  Among the promises Narasimhan made at Starbucks’ shareholders meeting on Thursday was to keep in touch with employees and guests by working a half-day shift in a café at least once a month.

Correction:  The spelling of Michael Saltsman's name has been corrected.


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