Returning CEO Howard Schultz has been outspoken about his aversion to Starbucks employees unionization efforts.
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When Kevin Johnson retired as Starbucks' CEO in March, the company said the move had been months in the making. But the selection of who would serve as his temporary successor was surprising: former Starbucks CEO—and the man who brought the brand to prominence—Howard Schultz… who had previously retired himself.

If Johnson's exit was planned well in advance, why hadn't Starbucks lined up a permanent replacement? Arguably, the biggest challenge Starbucks is facing is a growing push by employees towards unionization, and Schultz's previous tenures as CEO were seen as creating a positive work environment for baristas. So speculation was that Schultz—who has previously encouraged workers not to unionize—may have been brought back to deal with these unionization issues.

Schultz hasn't shied away from that narrative. On Sunday, Starbucks posted an open letter from the CEO to partners on the company website. "With significant pressures leading to the fracturing of our partner and customer experiences, I've been transparent about our missteps and the reason for my return—to reimagine Starbucks—built on our core values and guiding principles," he said upfront. He continued saying he's been "meeting with partners at both large open forums and intimate, immersive collaboration sessions across the country to get underneath the challenges in the company that need to be addressed."

According to a report from Nation's Restaurant News, those stops have included cities as far flung as Phoenix, Chicago, San Jose, and Long Beach—which include some of the over 200 Starbucks locations where employees have filed for unionization votes.

Additionally, beyond the posted letter, Schultz has reportedly sent a letter directly to employees where he further described Starbucks as being in a "disruptive era" where unions are "aggressively sowing division" and "attempting to sell a very different view of what Starbucks should be."

Starbucks Chairman and CEO Howard Schultz
Credit: Jason Redmond / AFP via Getty Images

Reached for comment, Starbucks referred us back to Schultz's letter, specifically highlighting one section. "We will become the best version of Starbucks by co-creating our future directly as partners," Schultz wrote. "And we will strengthen the Starbucks community by upholding each other's dreams; upholding the standards and rituals of the company; celebrating partner individuality and voice; and upholding behaviors of mutual respect and dignity."

However, the very next paragraph may be more telling of the CEO's mindset. "We plan to move forward constructively with all Starbucks partners. However, we must not be distracted by the different vision being put forward by union organizers at some Starbucks stores. And while not all the partners supporting unionization are colluding with outside union forces, the critical point is that I do not believe conflict, division and dissension—which has been a focus of union organizing—benefits Starbucks or our partners."

Along those lines, today, The Wall Street Journal reported that Schultz may have another tactic up his sleeve: improvements to employee benefits that won't be extended to unionized workers since, by law, companies must negotiate with unions separately to change benefits. "People who might be voting for a union don't really understand," Schultz was quoted as stating to store leaders.

Needless to say, with only a couple weeks back on the job, Schultz's interim CEO title doesn't appear to be just a stopgap. The biggest name in Starbucks' history has come back with a purpose.