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Starbucks union leader describes 'overwhelming and humbling' White House meeting

Laura Garza, a union leader at Starbucks’ New York City Roastery, met with the president, vice president, and labor secretary on Thursday at the White House, and described the event as a huge boost to the nascent unionization movement.

"First and foremost, it was a completely overwhelming and humbling experience to represent partners that are organizing to unionize their stores," Garza told Yahoo Finance in a phone interview. "I think the main goal of the meeting yesterday [with] Secretary Walsh and Vice President Harris, and as well as President Biden, when he jumped in, all recognized everyone's right: a fundamental right to organize and also recognize that all workers across the country have a dignity to work."

Garza said the discussion was a round-table event, giving guests the opportunity to share "our stories of organizing and the success that has come from organizing successfully."

She also said the administration heard "how organizing can be an extremely lonesome and isolating experience, especially with aggressive anti-union busting from our places of employment like Starbucks and like Amazon."

Arizona State University law professor Michael Selmi, who’s written about employment discrimination and civil rights litigation, told Yahoo Finance that "even though these meetings were really symbolically important, it's not clear that there's gonna be much legislative follow up from them. I suspect and in part, because legislation with respect to even changing minimum wage, which every [person] widely supports has gotten nowhere for now a couple decades going back."

Selmi added that "this whole union movement is so hard to analyze at this point it's still so early."

Starbucks 'deeply concerned' by snub

Starbucks (SBUX) criticized the meeting with several union organizers from around the country — including a barista from Starbucks Workers United — as unionization efforts within the coffee giant's stores gain momentum.

In a letter, AJ Jones, Starbucks Senior Vice President of Global Communications and Public Affairs, wrote to White House counselor Steve Ricchetti about how the decision to not invite representatives from the company was "deeply" concerning.

"We are deeply concerned that Workers United, which is actively engaged in collective bargaining with us and trying to organize all our stores and our +240,000 partners (employees), was invited to the meeting while not inviting official Starbucks representatives, to discuss our view on the matter," Jones wrote.

"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," he added. "As you know, American workers have the absolute right to decide for themselves to unionize, or not to unionize, without any undue influences."

Jones requested to meet with the Biden administration in order to introduce "a diverse, representative group of Starbucks partners from across the country to the White House so that they can share points of view and experiences that are vastly different from those presented by Workers United."

The White House did not respond to Yahoo Finance's request for comment.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaks with moderator Monica Guzman during his book tour in Seattle, Washington, U.S., January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Redmond
Howard Schultz speaks with moderator Monica Guzman during his book tour in Seattle, Washington, U.S., January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Redmond

'That just doesn't seem like a good business model'

Starbucks workers have been organizing at stores at a rapid speed — over 70 stores have voted in favor of unionization since December, and a flurry of union election filings are added daily. Seven stores have voted against the measure, while five stores remain undetermined, according to the NLRB records.

Starbucks recently announced a $1 billion investment to increase workers' pay, offer additional training, and improve stores. Crucially, these benefits may not apply to unionized stores.

On Friday, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told Yahoo Finance Live (video above) that three-time Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz should invest "in all of his workforce," not just the stores without unions.

“I don't think he can just invest in the people, the dozen shops that organize. That just doesn't seem like a good business model," Walsh said. "I commend him for investing in their salaries, and I also would recommend that the stores that organize to sit down and have a conversation with them.”

Garza noted she wanted to sit down with Schultz, who took over as interim CEO last month, and other Starbucks executives to work out various issues.

"We want to sit down and have them hear our stories and come to the bargaining table really with an open mind and an open heart," she said. "We believe that we can work together in creating and in the continuation of the whole idea of the third place. Starbucks is a very progressive company and we want to share that vision with them as well."

Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv

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