If there’s one constant about life on this benighted planet, it’s that bosses are constantly trying to find new ways to make their workers forget that they’re being exploited. One fun recent trend is lavishly compensated executives rolling up their sleeves for five minutes and doing the jobs their employees do—like Undercover Boss but without the undercover part. Bosses, they’re just like us! Oh, and also, they have a small request: please don’t unionize!
That is how you get this charming little scene from a Starbucks in Buffalo, NY:
Rossann Williams usually spends her time in Seattle, where, according to her corporate bio, she “specializes in complex problem solving and finding ways to drive significant growth in already large, mature businesses.” But here she is across the country in Buffalo, sweeping floors that already look pretty clean to me. Is this because Williams sees floors as a “complex problem” to solve? No, it’s because workers in Buffalo are trying to unionize, and Starbucks has launched a ludicrously aggressive union-busting campaign in response. (This is despite the fact that Starbucks presents itself as a progressive company—who would have thought!)
In recent weeks, executives from Seattle and regional managers have swarmed local stores, pulling aside workers to chat one-on-one during their breaks, at peak hours, at night, and even on Labor Day weekend, helping baristas make coffee, clean up, and take out the trash.
“They’re rolling up expensive suits to wash dishes and do trash runs. It’s almost comical,” said Jaz Brisack, a barista from one of the Buffalo stores that filed for a union election.
Rossann Williams, the president of Starbucks North America—which has more than 8,000 coffee shops—also has been spending long hours in Buffalo stores, talking to workers, sitting in the parking lot, and handing out $10 gift cards to customers, according to workers. Motherboard spoke to workers in three separate stores who said that they feel surveilled, distracted, and intimidated by Williams’ sudden presence in their stores.
Starbucks has also sent former CEO and presidential hopeful Howard Schultz to Buffalo to talk to workers. I bet he talked to them about how unions aren’t a threat, right? Starbucks has said that the bosses are just hanging out because they want to connect with their people on the ground, which, sure, whatever.
This sort of activity is both patronizing and disturbing. It’s patronizing because Starbucks hopes that workers in Buffalo will see the big dogs washing a glass and forget that longstanding understaffing has made their jobs miserable. (Rossann picked a broom up, guys! Guess we don’t need to hire more people after all.) This is what you do when you think your employees are huge stupid idiots.
It’s disturbing because this takes the standard anti-union captive audience playbook to a whole other level. No longer are the bosses merely shuffling Starbucks workers into a room to be fed corporate propaganda (though, don’t worry, those are apparently still happening too). Now they’re hovering around the workplace, taking everything in, making their presence and their power felt—and all under the guise of “we’re all one big family, I clean floors too!” Hopefully, this cloying, sinister ploy fails miserably, and Starbucks workers kick these bosses to the curb with the other trash.