Starbucks’ interim CEO Howard Schultz took to the stage in Washington D.C. on Thursday to defend his opposition to unionization drives at stores across the country.

At the crux of his argument? Unions are only for workers with abusive employers.

In an onstage interview with New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin on Monday, Schultz rejected the idea that he was “anti-union” before diving into explaining why he has remained an opponent of unionizing by Starbucks employees.

Referring to history, Schultz explained that unions were a necessity at a time when firms abused their employees, something he said was absent in Starbucks’ case today. Instead, he said the problem is less a lack of union representation but more so a perception that businesses are not doing enough and that it is “the enemy”.

"We’re not in the coal mining business, we’re not abusing our people,” Schultz told Sorkin. “But the sweeping issue in the country is that businesses are not doing enough and that business is the enemy”.

Currently, workers at about 143 Starbucks locations out of about 9,000 have voted to unionize after a store in Buffalo, New York became the first to do so last December.

Schultz, who returned as interim CEO in April after initially retiring in 2018, said that he would be unwilling to bargain with a union. At the event with Sorkin, he repeated his belief that unions were not effective at delivering the benefits to workers.

“We don’t believe that a third party should lead our people and so we are in a battle for the hearts and minds of our people," explained the CEO.

Despite Schultz’s argument against unionizing at Starbucks, the company has been cited for labor violations in the past, including charges of penalizing workers that sought to create a union.

On May 6, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accused Starbucks of 29 unfair labor practices that included 200 violations of federal labor law. In their complaint, the NLRB accused Starbucks of obstructing unionization efforts among its Buffalo-based employees and going so far as to reduce compensation and close down stores in the area to intimidate employees.

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