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CNBC reports that during his most recent tenure at CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz "violated federal labor law by telling a barista in California who questioned the coffee chain’s response to union organizing to 'go work for another company,' a National Labor Relations Board judge has ruled."

The story says that Schultz made the comment while on a "listening tour" of stores last year that seemed designed to deal with a growing unionization movement within the company.  (More than 300 Starbucks stores in the US have now unionized, though none of them have yet come to a collective bargaining agreement with the company.)

CNBC writes that "Schultz had met with a group of employees from Starbucks locations in Long Beach, California, to discuss concerns about working conditions."  The employee, Madison Hall, suggested that "the company should engage in collective bargaining and sign a pledge not to interfere with union organizing, among other comments," and "asked Schultz about allegations of illegal labor practices in complaints pending at the NLRB, according to the filings.

"Schultz responded that he had not come to discuss union issues and told Hall that 'if you’re not happy at Starbucks, you can go work for another company'."

The story notes that "the judge’s decision can be appealed to the five-member NLRB and then to a federal appeals court."

In another ruling, the judge "dismissed a separate claim that Starbucks unlawfully interrogated workers at the meeting by asking them to write their concerns about the company on Post-It notes and place stickers next to comments by other workers that they agreed with."

KC's View:

Let's be clear.  Schultz and Starbucks can say all they want that the "listening tour" wasn't designed to deal with union issues, but they're only saying that because someone might equate "listening" with "negotiating."  But Schultz probably never would've com back for a third go-round as CEO, and never would've found himself in a Long Beach Starbucks, if he weren't trying to nip the unionization movement in the bud.

To me, the broader issue that Starbucks never seems to have gotten is the fact that when people like Madison Hall speak up, it isn't necessarily because they are malcontents.  Often - especially in a company like Starbucks - it is because they like their jobs and feel invested in the company, which in this case they feel has not lived up to its stated values.  Instead of dismissing such feelings, it makes a lot more sense to embrace them and use them to shape policy and narrative.  

One other thing - I have a small tip for business leaders.  If you say you're on a "listening tour," sometimes it is best to shut the hell up.