Starbucks Mad About Biden's Photo-Op With Union Activists

The president’s support for unionizing workers didn't go over well with the coffee chain as it battles an organizing campaign.

President Joe Biden invited union activists to the White House on Thursday for a symbolically significant meeting that reinforced the president’s bona fides as a union man. The photo-op excited progressives who want the administration to do everything it can to support union organizing and rejuvenate the labor movement.

Starbucks was less thrilled about it.

The group of worker-activists in the Oval Office included Laura Garza, an employee from Starbucks’ New York roastery who is part of the chain’s growing union campaign.

Starbucks executive AJ Jones II penned a letter Thursday to Steve Ricchetti, the president’s counselor, asking that the White House hold a separate meet-and-greet for other representatives from Starbucks.

In the span of just a few months, more than 50 stores have voted to join the union Workers United, making it one of the most closely watched organizing efforts in decades. Starbucks has so far failed to stop the wave of organizing in its corporate-owned stores, despite waging an aggressive countercampaign.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and labor activists on Thursday in the Oval Office.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and labor activists on Thursday in the Oval Office.
Adam Schultz/White House

Jones said in his letter it wasn’t fair that only a union worker was there to share views on the company. (The full letter can be read here.)

“We believe this lack of representation discounts the reality that the majority of our partners oppose being members of a union and the unionization tactics being deployed by Workers United,” Jones wrote.

He ran through a litany of the company’s employee benefits and claimed that Starbucks has a “drastically more positive vision for our partners and our company than Workers United.” He requested that a “diverse, representative group” of Starbucks workers be invited to the White House for a separate gathering.

Starbucks already seems to have good access in Washington, having spent $480,000 on lobbying so far this year, according to Open Secrets.

The union campaign, known as Starbucks Workers United, told HuffPost in a statement that “equal time” was one of the “core principles” it has asked the company to adhere to during the organizing effort: “If Starbucks now believes in this principle, and grants us equal company time to talk to partners for every anti-union meeting they hold, we’d be happy to have them tag along next time we get invited to the White House.”

“Biden's photo-op with activists fired up progressives who want the administration to do everything it can to support union organizing.”

The group said Garza, who has been with the company for 22 years, shared her story with White House officials about “what it’s like to be intimidated and harassed by a company she has devoted her working life to.”

A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Starbucks letter shows how workers like Garza have compelled Biden and other Democrats to show their support for unionizing workers even though it may rankle powerful corporations, including those close with the Democratic Party.

The meeting Thursday featured Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union, which recently made history by forming the tech giant’s first U.S. union, at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York. In a tweet after the White House meeting, Smalls said Biden told him he had gotten the president “in trouble” with his successful organizing, underscoring the political dynamic at play.

The White House labor get-together also included workers from the gaming company Paizo, the animation studio Titmouse, the Baltimore Public Library and outdoor retailer REI, all workplaces where unions have been organizing. Biden was joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.

The campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon have turned into political stories, as workers and their allies call on lawmakers for public support. The same day workers met with Biden and other White House officials, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held a Senate Budget Committee hearing in which Smalls pilloried Amazon for its anti-union tactics and sparred with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) over corporate America’s treatment of workers.

The organizing campaign at Starbucks has led to a raft of unfair labor practice charges against the company, with Workers United having accused management of retaliating against union activists and threatening to withhold pay raises and benefits from workers who organize.

Officials at the National Labor Relations Board have found merit in some of the union’s allegations, filing a complaint against Starbucks at the labor board and seeking an injunction in federal court to have fired activists reinstated. Starbucks maintains that it fired the workers because they had violated company policies.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Garza’s age as 22. That number refers to how many years she’s been with the company.

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