Starbucks exploits Gaza war to step up union-busting

An unusual candidate has joined the growing calls for a Starbucks boycott—the coffee conglomerate itself. Baited by right-wing forces incensed by worker expressions of solidarity with Palestine, the company has committed one of its most desperate attacks on the growing Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) movement to date.

Starbucks is actually promoting an internal boycott of unionized stores under the improbable auspices of condemning terrorism.

It marks a new high-water mark of the company’s union-busting bonanza. Coupled with a frivolous intellectual property suit against the union and internal messaging to workers, Starbucks’ efforts to frame SBWU expresses its increasingly unpopular strategy of retaliation.

But how did it happen?

Starbucks escalated its union-busting by suing Starbucks Workers United for for trademark infringement and then called for a boycott of its own unionized stores. | via SBWU


On Oct. 8, Workers United International Union endorsed a statement on the war from the Jewish Labor Committee, led by RWDSU President Stuart Applebaum. Starbucks and its allies ignored this statement in their messaging and instead used the ongoing crisis to manufacture outrage and division.

Seizing on a single tweet posted by an individual within the Starbucks movement—quickly deleted—expressing “Solidarity with Palestine,” right-wing news media, the union-busting Center for Union Facts, and eventually Republican Party stalwart Rick Scott and the House Workforce Committee fabricated campaign of hate, incitement, and, ironically, a boycott of the very company in question.

“These stores are run by the union and their employees who support Hamas,” alleged the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce. The organization, which has its offices in the Trump Building on Wall Street, released a list of several hundred unionized Starbucks locations across the United States which it said should be boycotted.

The partner in this call to ditch the brew? Starbucks itself.

Within days, Chamber CEO Duvi Honig met with coffee boss Howard Schultz. On behalf of the Chamber, Honig suggested that Schultz “should close down the stores in question.” The former chairman expressed his desire to do so and to also “terminate the employment of those who support Hamas,” if he had the power to do so.

As it turned out, it was not the Orthodox Chamber that launched the initial boycott, but rather the political right. Sen. Rick Scott demanded a mass boycott until Starbucks leadership “strongly denounces and takes action against this horrific support of terrorism.” He was parroted by the GOP-controlled House Committee on Education and the Workforce, who took aim at individual baristas and organizers who had expressed sympathies on their personal social media for the Palestinian struggle.

Predictably, these condemnations by a sitting U.S. senator unleashed the floodgates for a torrent of hate directed indiscriminately against the company, its workers, and their union. Without a hint of restraint, Florida State Rep. Randy Fine threw gas on the flames: “If you go to Starbucks, you are supporting killing Jews.”

This dangerous escalation was taken further on Oct. 15 by the Orthodox Chamber, when it issued a call declaring: “Drinking a cup of Starbucks is drinking a cup of Jewish blood!” Like the words of Scott, the Chamber’s statement was a deliberate strategy of incitement.

Starbucks strikes

Starbucks immediately took up Scott’s call for a retaliatory strike against the union, in the form of a cease-and-desist order demanding the union renounce its own name and logo. Hoping to score a sympathetic Trump appointee to preside over the case, Starbucks also filed a trademark infringement suit in the conservative Iowa federal circuit. SBWU filed a countersuit in Pennsylvania.

As similar suits against unions at companies like Medieval Times have shown, it’s a losing argument to suggest that the “consumer confusion” of a union’s name is tantamount to intellectual property theft. But that’s of little concern to the bosses at Starbucks HQ, who saw an opening to escalate their effort to break the union.

Internally, the company released targeted messaging condemning SBWU and its membership, claiming the union was associated with “acts of terrorism, hate, and violence.” Customers and workers were encouraged to express their concerns directly to SBWU and SEIU officials.

The whole sequence was an attempt by the right to twist Starbucks’ arm into joining the ongoing neo-McCarthyite attack on friends of the Palestinian people in the labor movement. Once Starbucks had carried out its strike against the union, Scott ended his boycott, as did the Orthodox Chamber.

Not so savvy after all

Before a global audience, Starbucks’ obscene maneuvering hardly seems a righteous or business-savvy as it may appear at home in the U.S. Reader comments on coverage of the lawsuit from Morocco World News, for instance, demanded consumers stop patronizing Starbucks over its union-busting support for Israel; they scored hundreds of likes.

“[G]uys you can give up your matcha latte…and boycot [sic] starbucks!! this how you can help palestine!!!” opined one Moroccan youth. “Don’t worry #Starbucks… we are already boycotting since [you] support criminal government,” another veteran boycotter reminded the company.

The Doha News reports, meanwhile, that franchises “across Qatar and the broader region” are “noticeably empty” this week.

Expressions of outrage against Starbucks’ anti-worker stunt found an audience outside the Arab world, too. “Bojkot Starbucksa!” demanded one Balkan reader, and the clash did not go unreported in mainland China.

A good chunk of the company’s American audience isn’t necessarily having it, either. Social media posts calling for a boycott of Starbucks reach a far larger audience compared to those of the Center for Union Facts representing the corporation.

As public opinion grows against Israel’s ongoing attack on Gaza, a growing share of the youth market in particular is at stake. A large number of young American Jews have fundamentally shifted their view of Israel, for instance. In trying to navigate the emerging genocidal war, Schultz and his union-busting allies are facing a split in their consumer base: right-wing backers of Netanyahu vs. enlightened detractors from the left.

Starbucks withdrew from the Israeli market in 2003, it has been speculated, “to appease the anti-Israel…Arab world.” Regardless of the company’s motive for its retreat from the very country it now purports to vindicate, the company’s website on its Middle Eastern and North African operations is clearly sensitive to potential anger for its alleged support for Israel, repeatedly disavowing any alleged financial support from the company or Schultz in particular.

Schultz’s vehement anti-union stance has been described by the corporate press as a “matter of self-image”—an expression of his insecurity in the face of “outside agitator” forces spoiling his brand—and as “tinkering from outside the formal chain of command” to the chagrin of other leading executives.

Now, however, Schultz has gone beyond “tinkering” by embroiling the company in a lurid misadventure putting union workers and the brand alike at risk. As his own conduct continues to be found illegal in court, patience with these indiscretions may continue to thin among his allies in the C-suite.

Turnover at the top

In September, Schultz resigned from the Starbucks Board, to be replaced by Wei Zhang, an AliBaba executive. Zhang, formerly Senior VP of Corporate Social Responsibility for Alibaba in Beijing, may be more sensitive to the international community’s position on Palestine than the more domestically marketed Land O’ Lakes or Nike executives who also populate Starbucks’ top leadership.

The diplomatic orbit of AliBaba, which previously shuttered its development center in Israel, might imaginably pull the Board’s center of gravity away from such frivolous and risky diversions—diversions which surely would be frowned upon in most global markets.

Despite massive investment in the growing Chinese market, projected to be the brand’s largest by 2025, the company is still subject to political standards—as when the People’s Daily forcibly reminded the company that “one scandal is enough” to destroy even a “gold standard”  brand built painstakingly over years.

More sober minds on the Board may realize that support for Israel is a growing liability worldwide, and that no global company can advocate for Zionism without incurring the disdain of the world’s peace-loving people.

As a U.N. complaint brought by the union against the United States—alleging the government failed in its mandate to protect Starbucks workers universal right of association through the paucity of its labor law, moves through the International Labor Organization—the labor movements and governments of various countries will have more and more opportunity to eschew patience or patronage for the conglomerate, and may reorient towards local competitors or firms who abide by international labor standards.

Fundamentally, Schultz and his enablers on the Board of Directors are in denial about the magnitude of the corporation’s legal woes, and the inevitability of conceding to the union’s demand to bargain a first contract in good faith. The only way to sustain this denial is to align increasingly with the dangerous, unhinged pole of American politics—which will inevitably stain its destiny as a global brand.

Although he has stepped down from the Board, Schultz remains “lifelong Chairman Emeritus,” a position which seemingly entitles him to wage a personal “war on terror” against union agitators and make-believe Hamas proxies within.

Workers won’t back down

Workers United President Lynne Fox, herself the immediate descendent of Holocaust survivors and victims, did not mince words about the company’s provocation in a statement published at In These Times:

“I’m the president of a union of young workers who are now terrified that they’ve been placed on a hit list by their employer. At a time when we should be focused on the human tragedy taking place in Gaza and Israel, Starbucks is instead taking every chance it gets to bash its employees as supporters of hate and violence without any concern for truth—or consequences.”

Starbucks’ encouragement of the mob to target Fox expresses the kind of anti-Semitism that often emerges from far-right Zionism, which defames, bullies, and renounces the millions of peace-loving Jews, even Israelis, who dare to criticize any aspect of the apartheid regime.

These manipulations are the subject of an unfair labor practice charge filed by the union alleging that the company acted with the intention “of inciting fear and workplace violence against employees,” of “using the…global tragedy against its own employees,” and illegally threatening to fire union workers and close union shops.

“Am I at risk for being fired if I’m found out to…have attended pro-Palestine rallies?” asked one union barista when she read the news of Starbucks’ lawsuit. (After Schultz’s threat, one may wonder.) “That’s a lot to be doing over a tweet.”

While the dueling lawsuits and the union’s NLRB charge slowly progress, workers and their union grow increasingly fearful of the erratic violence of an incensed reactionary tendency in U.S. political life that has shown itself capable of stabbings, shootings, and threats against children and families in recent days.

More than simply tweeting individually about the war on Gaza, union workers in SBWU took the issue upon themselves and drafted a statement in support of Palestinian self-determination and endorsing the comprehensive statement issued by Jewish Voice for Peace.

A tweet from the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce. | Via Twitter (now X)

After discussion, 96% of workers voted to affirm the solidarity resolution—a stunning proportion in a country where public support for Palestine (not to mention merely being Arab) remains politically and physically dangerous to this day. Underlining the workforce’s diverse composition—Jewish, Muslim, and Palestinian together—union baristas affirmed the only tenable position: solidarity.

The union itself has yet to call any boycott action, but the spontaneous call to ditch the brand has spread organically with public outrage, a dynamic now magnified globally as the corporation’s vicious reprisals backfire again. If such a boycott is called, it will gain the support not just of labor, but of all peace-loving people who see in the union’s conduct a principled show of solidarity.

Starbucks subservient

Opposite the growing, militant, multinational movement of baristas stands an emerging sliver of Republican officials, reactionary billionaires, and the Littler Mendelson legal hawks inside of Starbucks’ war room. The once-chic café outlet obliges them and takes the low road: recidivist union-busting, fast food wages, and tacit support for the killing of Palestinians.

This budding coziness between Starbucks and the right was on display in the Senate hearing earlier this year where Schultz was grilled by progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders and Markey and lavished with enabling praise by right-wing Sens. Rand Paul, Mitt Romney, and Markwayne Mullin in turn. Now, this alliance is blooming into a more strident and overt political alliance.

Big money, too, has jumped in, with the Koch Brothers-affiliated National Right to Work Foundation colluding with the coffee giant to foster astroturfed decertification campaigns in union shops. And the corporation’s ongoing evasion regarding cuts to gender-affirming healthcare gives the cultural right another point of entry to their anti-worker pact.

As Starbucks aligns itself step-by-step with ultra-right Zionists and Republican minority rule, the company will only aggravate the contradictions between its purported progressivism and practical subservience to anti-democratic forces. Much like Israel, Starbucks has cornered itself into a position of belligerence and reprisal, while the world, and workers, turn more and more towards the horizon of peace, democracy, and social justice.

As with all news-analysis and op-ed articles published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.

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Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.