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Starbucks founder Howard Schultz returns as interim leader as store workers unionize

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Tomorrow, there'll be a homecoming of sorts at Starbucks. Howard Schultz is coming back as interim CEO. Schultz built the company into a global powerhouse. 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.

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

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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 in building a different kind of company.

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.

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SCHULTZ: I experienced at the age of 7 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. Schultz said his goal all these years...

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SCHULTZ: Has been to try and do everything we can to exceed the expectations of the people wearing the green apron.

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 Picciano was working at a drive-thru location then. It was extremely busy, yet Picciano says 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, Gailyn Berg set up.

BERG: It was definitely once Buffalo voted yes, then I was like, all right. Now is our time. We need to do this.

HSU: That sentiment has swept through Starbucks stores across the country. Close to 190 have sought union votes. And so far, 10 have actually unionized. With the Springfield election coming up in just a couple weeks, the workers there say their hours have been cut. Lots of new hires have been made. And 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, something he hopes Howard Schultz will recognize. In Springfield, Gailyn Berg actually has faith in Schultz, believing he will do right by them.

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

HSU: They'll find out soon. Schultz returns on Monday.

Andrea HSU, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.