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Howard Schultz returns with a bang, suspending stock buybacks and addressing union efforts at Starbucks

April 6, 2022, 8:15 PM UTC

Howard Schultz made a splashy return to the CEO chair at Starbucks, addressing the coffee giant’s growing union movement, pausing stock buybacks, and promising to enter the NFT space. 

In a Monday town hall, Schultz told employees that companies across the country are being “assaulted” by threats of unionization, later adding, “I’m not an anti-union person. I am pro-Starbucks, pro-partner, pro-Starbucks culture…[and] we didn’t get here by having a union.”

Schultz, serving his third term as company CEO on an interim basis, also referred to unions as organizations “trying to take our people.” According to a Starbucks representative, Schultz was alluding to people outside of the company who have reportedly been paid to organize unions at Starbucks.

Schultz’s remarks drew a clear—and some would argue, markedly anti-union—line in the sand, coming shortly after some shareholders expressed opposing expectations for the CEO’s tenure.

Senior leaders from SOC Investment Group and Trillium Asset Management urged Schultz in a joint statement on Monday “to consider the material regulatory and reputational risks of antagonizing its workers who are attempting to address long-standing workplace issues with a voice on the job.”

They continued: “Starbucks customers and shareholders alike want to know that the barista making their latte is making ends meet at home. As shareholders, we believe that coming to the table with workers leads to lower turnover, resilient operations, greater innovation, and long-term success.”

Still, Schultz did seem to concede that Starbucks must do more to meet its workers’ needs. In a letter published early Monday, he announced that the company will suspend its stock repurchasing program to invest more profit into its people and stores.

He added that company leadership will visit stores and manufacturing plants globally to understand employees’ “thinking and ideas about how to build this next Starbucks.” The company denied any relationship between this announcement and the unionization efforts under way, citing Schultz’s longtime commitment to store employees. 

As Schultz and his leadership team tour the company’s retail locations, they’re likely to encounter pro-union sentiment, at least domestically. Workers at more than 140 stores in 27 states have filed petitions for union elections.

“If Howard Schultz is really listening, he’ll hear workers demanding a union loud and clear,” Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, tells Fortune. “Any company that claims to care about racial and economic justice needs to put those values into action by respecting workers’ right to come together in union. Until Starbucks does that, workers will see right through the company’s announcement today as another insufficient step that falls short of their demands.”

Reversal of a $20 billion commitment

Stock buybacks at Starbucks increased from $2 billion in 2017 to $10.2 billion in 2019 under former CEO Kevin Johnson. The program was suspended in 2020 due to COVID-19. It resumed stock buybacks in Q4 of 2021, which ended in January, spending $3.5 billion on buybacks. Starbucks also authorized $20 billion last year to buy back shares and pay dividends over the next three years. The dividends are not affected by the suspension of stock repurchasing.

The company’s reversal is all the more surprising given the growing practice of stock buybacks. S&P 500 have announced buyback plans valued at $238 billion through February 2022, according to Goldman Sachs, which forecasts buybacks to total over $1 trillion this year.

Critics, ranging from politicians to watchdog groups and researchers, have expressed displeasure over stock buybacks, arguing that they serve executives and shareholder interests at the expense of workers and discretionary capital investments. But while some investors welcome the financial windfall of buybacks, others prefer that capital be injected back into the company’s R&D, training, technology, staffing or benefits.

The regulatory climate for stock repurchasing also appears to be shifting. In September, two Democratic senators proposed a 2% tax on buybacks to discourage the practice, and in December, the SEC proposed new share repurchase disclosure rules.

Starbucks’ stock price declined 7% this week and has dropped by nearly 30% this year, but analysts say the company is operationally solid and has growth potential.

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