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Starbucks is not a monolith

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Photo courtesy of Starbucks
Photo courtesy of Starbucks

A reader reached out over email last week to express some concerns about the SGN's coverage of Starbucks Workers United. They specifically mentioned the articles about the alleged removal of Pride decorations in some Starbucks stores, saying that coverage was biased toward the statements of the union and hasn't done enough to discover or acknowledge all the good the company is doing for its Queer employees. (This reader requested to remain anonymous, so their name has been omitted. To that end, I am using gender-neutral pronouns.)

Many might be tempted to write this email off as a case of misplaced sympathy. Anticorporate sentiment is popular right now, but whether or not one believes that sentiment is warranted, a Queer view from within corporate offices is rare.

Photo courtesy of Starbucks  

That is to say, this reader's experience matters. As a Queer, Trans person with more than a few years at the company, who knows people "from baristas to upper-level managers" throughout, they wrote that "Starbucks is an extremely LGBT-friendly place." They pointed out the company's very public support of the LGBTQ+ community, like its tradition of raising the Pride flag at its headquarters.

Perhaps most importantly, they wrote that "Starbucks paid for [their] (gender-affirming) surgery and has excellent healthcare benefits for Transgender people."

"I'm not doubting that there might have been some district managers or others who don't follow corporate policy on Pride decorations," they wrote, "but I find it in bad taste when reporting does not attempt to look at the whole picture and instead publishes these blanket accusations based on perhaps a few isolated incidents blown up by the unions, which attempt to make Starbucks look like any other company that is anti-LGBT."

Image courtesy of Starbucks  

Zooming out
Let's zoom out, then, to see more of the whole picture. Starbucks' healthcare plan has covered gender-affirming surgery since 2013, and according to PBS, the company extended full health benefits to same-sex partners in 1988 — which was early, considering that the first publicly traded company to do so was Lotus, in 1991. (Starbucks went public in 1992.)

On the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equity Report last year, the coffee giant scored a perfect 100. The report rates participants on criteria like workforce protections for LGBTQ+ employees, whether healthcare benefits are inclusive, and the quality of internal training and education around LGBTQ+ identities.

Those metrics are a strong indication that, in many ways, Starbucks is indeed at the top on LGBTQ+ issues. Its marketing also makes that hard to forget. References to the HRC's report can be found on the company's website, along with a year-by-year list of philanthropic acts and awards. Starbucks makes regular donations to LGBTQ+ nonprofits, totaling over $700,000 last year. Starbucks also dedicates considerable resources to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

However, in October of last year, a video released to Bloomberg showed the results of a survey of office-based Starbucks employees in the US. Only 52% of respondents said they "completely agree" that the company "behaves in an ethical and responsible manner"; only 48% said they completely agree that they were "proud of the role Starbucks has in making a social impact." The news outlet described these figures as "historic lows."

That the survey was conducted at all could imply that, internally, Starbucks is doing some soul-searching and could be trying to bring those numbers up. But at the same time, the company's response to the union movement so far has been far from open and sympathetic, and it has also used its record of good citizenship as a shield against criticism.

An article published in the New York Times late last year dedicated a sizable portion to analyzing the history and character of now-former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and though the story it told was complicated and not entirely flattering, it gave him a lot of credit for the company's employee-friendly policies, as well as its alleged union-busting campaign.

In March, Schultz testified before a Senate panel, where he was grilled about his role in the company's hundreds of alleged violations of the National Labor Relations Act, which protects private-sector employees' rights to organize. At that time, the company had already been found guilty by an NLRB judge for telling workers that unionizing was futile, and for unlawfully firing seven union organizers in Buffalo, New York.

In his opening statement, Schultz emphasized how well Starbucks treats its workers, and that the company is an industry leader in employee benefits and compensation.

Those claims and the allegations of the union can both be true, in the same way that Starbucks can receive a perfect score from the HRC and remove Pride decorations from certain stores.

The game, then, isn't to choose a specific person or group of people to blame but to identify the systemic issues within the company that allowed the violations to occur, and ensure that the system is changed so that people within it aren't harmed in the same way again.

If most corporations were eager after all to scrutinize their own systemic shortfalls and broadcast them loudly year after year, the duty of a journalist might then be to raise awareness of their good practices. But when some of Starbucks' lowest-paid workers report casual discrimination, qualifying their statements with the company's otherwise stellar treatment of LGBTQ workers is redundant at best, and at worst could mistake a systemic problem for a fluke.