Encore: Starbucks' longtime CEO is back again. This time, things are different Starbucks founder and two-time CEO Howard Schultz is coming back to the company as interim leader. His return coincides with a widespread union drive by the chain's employees.

Encore: Starbucks' longtime CEO is back again. This time, things are different

Encore: Starbucks' longtime CEO is back again. This time, things are different

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Starbucks founder and two-time CEO Howard Schultz is coming back to the company as interim leader. His return coincides with a widespread union drive by the chain's employees.


A big week for Starbucks - Howard Schultz is back as interim CEO. Schultz built the company into a global powerhouse. And he's also responsible for Starbucks' reputation as a great place to work - now, high on his to-do list, to save that reputation as workers band together to raise grievances and demand more. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Last November, Howard Schultz traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., to try to cool a grassroots union campaign. Store employees were invited to spend part of their Saturday with him.


HSU: Schultz donned a Mister Rogers look with a zippered cardigan for what he called an intimate conversation.


HOWARD SCHULTZ: I just want to speak from my heart about what I believe this company is about and what we've tried to do over these many years.

HSU: He began with his own story - how he grew up poor in Brooklyn, how one day his father, a delivery man, slipped on ice and broke his hip and ankle. He had no health insurance, no worker's comp. In fact, he was fired.


SCHULTZ: I experienced, at the age of seven, the imprinting, the shame, the vulnerability, the embarrassment of a family that was really destitute.

HSU: Schultz said that propelled him to build the kind of company his father never had the chance to work for, and as Starbucks' CEO, that's what he did. In 1988, he extended health care to part time employees, pretty much unheard of at the time. A few years later, workers got stock options and in 2014, full tuition for college, all without a union. On his first day back, Schultz said the company doesn't need someone in between us and our people. He said he's reimagining a new Starbucks where employees or partners, as he calls them, are at the center of it all.


SCHULTZ: It's a return to doing everything we can to put our partners first, especially the partners who are wearing the green apron in our stores.

HSU: People like Gailyn Berg, a shift supervisor in Springfield, Va. - Berg first came to Starbucks four years ago, in part because of Howard Schultz and everything he'd done to make Starbucks' employees feel like true partners.

GAILYN BERG: I just - I knew that I wanted to be a part of that.

HSU: But Berg's rosy view took a hit at the very start of the pandemic. Berg says Starbucks was slow to respond as stores around them closed.

BERG: We were still asking questions. Are we still here? What are we doing? No one was wearing masks.

HSU: Starbucks did then shut a bunch of locations for six weeks and paid workers during that time. But when stores reopened, things were tense. Claire Piccianowas working at a drive-thru location then. It was extremely busy. Yet Piccianosays they were understaffed. She complained to her manager.

CLAIRE PICCIANO: I was stressed out, and I was crying, and I never cry at work.

HSU: She felt like no one heard her.

PICCIANO: Like, nobody cared. Like, even when a customer came in and refused to wear a mask and threatened to shoot up the store, we were instructed not to call the police.

HSU: Starbucks says under no circumstances would an employee be told not to call law enforcement. In this case, the company says police were not called because the customer left without incident. The workers were also unhappy about losing pandemic benefits - first, hazard pay, then, a daily food and drink allowance, even as other COVID benefits were introduced. Then, last December, when workers at two Starbucks' stores in Buffalo voted to unionize,GailynBerg sat up.

BERG: It was definitely once Buffalo voted, yes, then I was like, all right. Now's our time.

HSU: That sentiment has swept through Starbucks' stores around the country - close to 200 have sought union votes. Ten so far have unionized. With the Springfield election coming up next week, the workers say their hours have been cut. Lots of new hires have been made. There have been mandatory meetings where management tries to persuade them to vote, no. All of this infuriates the workers, and it's also drawn the attention of a group of Starbucks' investors who have asked the company to stop.

JONAS KRON: I think it's really clear to everybody that they can't proceed as if it's business as usual.

HSU: This is Jonas Kron of Trillium Asset Management.

KRON: When you have a company like Starbucks, it is so dependent on the strength of its brand. Customers have the option to go somewhere else and to go somewhere else quite easily.

HSU: In the past, Kron says, Starbucks' policies and practices have made it a great company.

KRON: But the bar has been raised.

HSU: Workers want to feel empowered, he says. In Springfield,GailynBerg is optimistic that Howard Schultz will do right by them.

BERG: I think he's going to try. I really hope so, at least.

HSU: With his return this week, they'll find out soon. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.


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