Howard Schultz’s Claims of “Centrism” Are Laughable Given His Record as Starbucks CEO

Workers prepare coffee during the inauguration of the first Starbucks in Bogota, Colombia on July 16, 2014.
Workers prepare coffee during the inauguration of the first Starbucks in Bogota, Colombia on July 16, 2014. John Vizcaino/Reuters

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced over the weekend that he is seriously considering running for president as a “centrist Independent.” In discussing the possible bid, Schultz has noted that he can’t run as a Democrat because “the party has shifted so far to the left.”

Schultz’s potential campaign is causing many opponents of Donald Trump more indigestion than an Iced Praline Chestnut Latte because they’re scared to death that a 2020 spoiler might throw the election to the president. Trump himself has reportedly told fundraisers that he’s trying to goad Schultz into running because he thinks it will help his re-election chances.

In light of the very real threat his candidacy might pose to those wishing to unseat Trump, one important task of critics will be to make crystal clear that his record as CEO of Starbucks totally undermines his self-representation as a committed “centrist.”

Centrist means representing a broad consensus, or a common-sense middle ground. Schultz has made choices in his business that in no way represent the mainstream view of how people want their workplaces to be.

For one, during Schultz’s long tenure as CEO, Starbucks repeatedly fought against workers’ attempts to organize a union. In 2008, for example, a National Labor Relations Board judge found that the company had illegally fired three workers for their union activities, as well as violated other aspects of the law. Starbucks workers in our country still don’t have a union. Although the right wing has tried for years to paint unions as extreme, a recent Gallup poll showed that 62 percent of Americans approve of labor unions; similarly, an MIT survey found that most workers wanted a greater voice on the job, and that almost half would join a union if given the opportunity. Squelching union organizing efforts may be routine for companies, but it’s not where our country’s political center lies.

Starbucks also pays its workers poverty wages. According to PayScale, an online salary information company, the average hourly rate for Starbucks employees is around $11 per hour. Baristas average $9.77 per hour, and wages don’t reach $15 per hour until a worker becomes a retail store manager ($17.44) or assistant manager ($15.17).

And for years, Starbucks workers had unpredictable work schedules that impeded their ability to plan child care and other aspects of their lives. The company even had something workers unofficially named “clopenings,” in which the same person would be assigned to close the store and then open the next morning, leaving little time for anything in between. After negative media coverage, Starbucks announced in 2014 that schedules would be reliable and shared in advance, yet a year later workers still reported persistent problems.

How about access to courts? If workers want to bring a lawsuit for anything from race discrimination to sexual harassment to wage theft, they can’t, because the company requires employees to sign an arbitration agreement as a condition of employment, and also to give up their right to bring a class action lawsuit. The #MeToo movement has helped to illustrate how harmful forced arbitration is: It typically results in denying workers the ability to vindicate their rights and hiding misconduct from public view. Schultz made much of his “Race Together” corporate campaign to spark conversations about race, but if a Starbucks employee were actually discriminated against, the company would prevent her from going to court.

What about the company’s ratio of CEO compensation to typical worker pay? Starbucks under Schultz had a 204-to-1 ratio, just a hair better than Walmart (209:1); Schultz’s total yearly compensation was reported to be around $20 million, while the median worker annual pay lingered at $28,000.

These are not the values of a centrist. Most people have or had jobs, and know what it means to be a working person: to live paycheck to paycheck, to struggle to cover the bills, to need a regular work schedule, and to want more say on the job. And because of that, they have a basic sense of what constitutes a fair workplace. Starbucks under Schultz was not that workplace.

To be sure, Schultz is no Trump. There’s no long trail of unpaid wages, or outright fraud, or any of the incredible grotesquerie associated with our current president. But particularly because of his record as CEO, to position himself as the moderate and the Democratic Party as extreme is simply wrong.

The story of the Democratic Party in the 20th century was about standing up for common sense, basic rights of working people. FDR presided over the New Deal, and JFK signed an executive order granting federal employees the right to join unions. Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, and Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The party has not moved radically left. It’s Schultz who has generally run his business in a way that runs against the party’s history of standing for basic workers’ rights.

Schultz is suffering from a severe affliction of horrendous judgment combined with both sides–ism. Perhaps he is a centrist among CEOs, but he is far from a centrist among ordinary Americans.