When activism becomes bad for the bottom line

Since June 2020, much of corporate America has been in a shotgun marriage with the progressive movement. After seeing large mobs of consumers wreak havoc across America’s cities, big retailers and service providers jumped to show their credentials with the cause. Pledged donations to social-justice groups at one time exceeded $50 billion, per a Washington Post analysis, while some like Major League Baseball went even further by boycotting states they deemed too conservative (e.g., Georgia). Go woke or go broke, they seemed to believe, though there is ample reason to worry that this kind of activism is bad for the bottom line.

But in some cases, that lefty activism ends at wokeness. When it comes to unionization drives by progressive employees, those same corporations hardly share their enthusiasm. Starbucks is the latest example.

Over the last year, 16 of its company-owned cafés have formed unions while over 200 have filed petitions to do so. It’s a crisis for the company that has long opposed them, and CEO Howard Schultz has fought back — promising to cut benefits to its unionized workers and increase benefits for those who aren’t. According to Starbucks Workers United, the union leading the organizing effort, the company has closed stores, sent executives on surprise checkups, and fired some employees leading calls for unionization. Schultz himself has embarked on a tour across the country to persuade workers against unionizing, sometimes lashing out at them. “If you hate Starbucks . . . go somewhere else,” he told Madison Hall, a 25-year-old barista from California, recently. The company is now the subject of a National Labor Relations Board investigation for union-busting.

On the face of it, Schulz’s efforts make sense. The decision to join a union, if at all, should be made by individual workers — especially since the dues they collect can ding workers’ paychecks and be used to fund speech with which the workers disagree, as exemplified in the Janus case. Moreover, with America’s labor movement having a history of corruption and racketeering, Schultz is right to discourage their formation in favor of a “company team approach.”

Still, this contrasts with Starbucks’ otherwise full-throated endorsement of progressive causes. With its brand long the epitome of what Al Sharpton called “latte liberals” — well-to-do progressives isolated from the issues they champion — Starbucks has, over the last two years, pledged over $100 million in social-justice grants. Nowadays, one can hardly walk into a Starbucks without seeing calls for “trans rights,” “climate justice,” or “BLM” scrawled on the walls in pink chalk or baristas wearing row upon row of buttons for left-wing causes.

Starbucks isn’t alone in this effort. Amazon, America’s biggest retailer, has donated over $170 million to such groups while leading a systematic campaign — with flyers, mail ads, social media, phone calls, and threats — to crush unionization at its factories. Even the New York Times has tried (and failed) to prevent their formation. Now, Apple employees are now making an attempt to unionize, which the company is ready to resist.

When push comes to shove, corporations have revealed (or recalled) what they truly are: profit-making businesses. Expect them to remain woke, as long as it’s popular, but not go any further. They are happy to virtue-signal and practice “allyship” with progressives so long as it doesn’t raise their payrolls and/or hurt their revenue. Unionization shows the limits of their imperfect union.

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