Senators have accused Starbucks of union-busting and violating labor laws against workers. A recent report released by a Senate labor committee outlines repeated charges of the coffee chain engaging in “a pattern of flagrant violations of federal labor law.” The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has filed over 80 complaints against the company, and workers have also filed over 500 unfair labor practice complaints.
These findings sharply contrast with Starbucks’ long-held publicly branded company values. The rise of consumer activism means that consumers are more likely to purchase goods and services from companies they politically align with while boycotting those they don’t. In response, from greenwashing to rainbow capitalism, corporations like Starbucks are increasingly responsive—at first glance—to the demands of progressive consumers.
The definition of a “progressive” company varies from source to source. Yahoo’s January 2023 breakdown of the nation’s most progressive workplaces considered metrics such as inclusion and diversity, employee-friendly policies, sustainability, and incentives that promote internal growth. In an Axios survey regarding consumer perception, Twitter and Google ranked higher amongst Democrats, while more openly conservative brands such as Papa John’s and Chick-fil-A ranked lower. In a Google consumer survey assessing LGBTQIA+ representation in advertising, “45% of consumers under 34 say they’re more likely to do repeat business with an LGBT-friendly company,” with 54% saying they’d choose an “equality-focused brand” over a competitor.
However, as more workers unionize in a post-COVID-mitigation boom, supposedly progressive corporations are revealing their true natures, squashing unionization attempts through anti-union tactics and extensive teams of lawyers and labor management professionals.
“Progressive employers or employers that proclaim to be progressive need to put their action where their values are supposed to be,” said David Young, United Food and Commercial Workers’ international vice president and organizing director. “You cannot say you’re a progressive employer when you’re a regressive bargainer.”
In many cases, workers are attracted to companies precisely because of their purported progressive values. However, many eventually realize that the actual working experience is not as advertised and face disheartening responses to unionization efforts.
According to workers for REI, the outdoor gear company is guilty of this exact phenomenon.
“REI is always conceived as a progressive-image employer; they have relaxed standards in hiring in terms of image,” Young said. He cites the company’s acceptance of tattoos, piercings, and casualwear compared to other companies.“They [also] claim to be a cooperative, but that’s a farce. The moment that workers tried to organize and join a union, they became viciously anti-union and anti-worker. And they continue to be that way.”
Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, Amy’s Kitchen, and many others join Starbucks and REI in the category of progressively branded companies that commit labor violations and union-busting. According to Claudia Shacter-deChabert, a boycott organizer for the United Farmworkers Union and a labor relations specialist for New York State United Teachers, there are various ways for conscious consumers to respond to this corporate hypocrisy. She says there’s been a general shift in corporations’ relationships with the public, referencing Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s demeanor before the Senate committee.
“[Corporations] don’t embarrass anymore,” said Shacter-deChabert.
She encourages consumers to look beyond corporate branding and recognize that many of progressively branded companies do not act in truly progressive ways. On an individual level, Shacter-deChabert highlights that consumers can vote with their dollar by boycotting individual locations or the company as a whole.
“Don’t shop there,” she says. “If you’re a [frequent] customer, let them know why you’re no longer shopping there and ask workers what you can do to help.”
Shacter-deChabert also encourages people to shop at local establishments and small businesses, regardless of the company’s politics.
“I’d much rather patronize my local neighborhood bodega or coffee place that’s owned by two people than a huge conglomerate,” she said.
Young agrees in part, asserting that boycotting is actually “not helpful to assisting workers in improving their life” unless they’ve asked for it.
“Outright boycotting doesn’t necessarily help the workers because it ends up causing loss of sales, which turns to loss of hours and loss of income in certain cases,” said Young.
Both Shacter-deChabert and Young agree that consumers should start by listening to the specific demands and calls to action from worker’s rights activists.
“The most important thing that people can do to influence progressive employers when they are abusing their workers … is to be what we at the UFCW call an ‘active consumer,’” Young said. He recommends coordinating individual campaigns of written letters, social media posts, and emails that call out the hypocrisy.
“Progressive employers are oftentimes not so progressive, but they built that brand identity for the consumer. So when you call it out and give examples, that hurts their image. Their image costs them money,” he said.
When faced with union-antagonistic political environments or industries, workers may call upon consumers to engage in alternative demands that don’t involve public support of union formation. For example, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a farmworker collective based in Florida, has employed a unique approach to negotiating for improved workers’ rights by targeting the purchasing power of grocery store retailers and fast food companies through the Fair Food Program (FPP) model.
Under this model, companies like McDonald’s and Chipotle commit to paying a penny more for each pound of tomatoes purchased and only work with partnered growers that follow labor standards. CIW also created partnerships with activist organizations such as Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, Just Harvest USA, and the Student Farmworker Alliance, the latter of whom managed to get Taco Bell banned from fast-food-hungry college campuses until the company agreed to sign the FPP pledge.
Last month, the Coalition of Immokalee workers led a five-day march across Florida from Pahokee to Palm Beach. The theme of the march, “Build a New World,” drew explicit comparison between the worker exploitation practiced in the agricultural town of Pahokee and the billionaires inhabiting Palm Beach.
As large conglomerates continue to innovate forms of marketing and branding to garner support for their progressive facades, thoughtful consumers will need to be more vigilant. Whether it’s showing up for the last leg of a march or participating in a boycott, activists say individual and collective actions are necessary to supporting and sustaining the fight for worker empowerment.