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Starbucks Baristas Are Unionizing, and Even Howard Schultz Can’t Make Them Stop

The return of the company’s longtime CEO hasn’t slowed the workers, who are inspiring activists at Amazon and showing the extent of labor’s new power.

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Photographer: Sarah Anne Ward for Bloomberg Businessweek; Food Stylist: Eugene Jho

On April 4, the first day of Howard Schultz’s third go-round as chief executive officer of Starbucks Corp., he set the tone with an espresso tasting. Dozens of baristas gathered in rows at the company’s headquarters in Seattle, while many more joined from across the country via livestream. First, the assembled took a collective slurp of coffee. “Full-bodied, bold—to me, that’s representative of who we are,” said Michelle Burns, the executive who oversees coffee sourcing. Next, an employee named Fen Tapley led the crowd in an impromptu protest against Florida’s new “Don’t Say Gay” law: “Gay! Gay! Gay!” they chanted. Then it was time to introduce Schultz. “He’s chosen to return and to come back and to put on the green apron alongside all of us,” Tapley said. The baristas gave the CEO a standing ovation. “You’re going to make me cry,” Schultz said.

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