Inside Starbucks' political strategy and the millions it spends on lobbying as the coffee giant makes an unprecedented effort to get people to vote
Starbucksis making a major push to get workers involved in the 2020 election, including offering free Lyft rides to vote.
- Unlike some other chains, the coffee giant does not donate to political candidates directly or via political action committees.
- Starbucks has spent $520,000 in the first half of 2020 lobbying on policies concerning immigration, employee mental health benefits, and civic engagement.
- The chain earned a reputation as a progressive brand under the leadership of
Howard Schultz, Starbucks' former CEO who considered running for president as an independent candidate in the 2020 election.
Starbucks is making an unprecedented effort to get employees and customers to vote in the 2020 election.
On Tuesday, the coffee giant announced it is providing all employees a free one-way Lyft ride costing up to $75 to vote, volunteer as a poll worker, or drop off their ballot at a post office, ballot box, or other drop spot.
Starbucks also told employees in late August that no one would have to "choose between working their shift or voting on or before Election Day." The coffee giant's stores will remain open on Election Day, but employees with shifts that day are being encouraged to work with managers to develop a plan to vote.
The company said it would push for policies to make voting safe and accessible for all, as well as provide opportunities for employees to volunteer as nonpartisan poll workers. Starbucks is also using its app to share voter registration material with customers.
While Starbucks is not backing any candidates in 2020, the company has long been known for its outspokenness on certain issues — even when many other chains remain silent. Starbucks also quietly spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbying every year.
Starbucks' former CEO and longtime leader Howard Schultz teased a presidential run last year, before endorsing Vice President Joe Biden in September. However, Starbucks emphasized that its voter engagement efforts are not focused on a particular candidate or particular political issue.
"Who you vote for is a very personal decision that you make as a citizen," Kevin Johnson, Starbucks' current CEO, wrote in a letter to employees in late August. "It is one way for you to be heard. It is how democracy works."
Starbucks doesn't donate to candidates, but it has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying
Unlike many companies, Starbucks does not donate to political campaigns directly or via political action committee. In 2019, Starbucks donated $30,000 to Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), a PAC backed by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce focusing on businesses' interests.
"Starbucks Coffee Company believes we have a responsibility to advocate policies that support the health of our business, our partners, and the communities in which we do business," the company says in its most recent release on its political activity.
Starbucks does, however, spend a significant amount of money lobbying. In the first half of 2020, Starbucks spent $520,000 lobbying the federal government, according to data from the Senate Office of Public Records analyzed by The Center for Responsive Politics.
So far this year, Starbucks retained 27 lobbyists from firms including Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, K&L Gates, and Monument Advocacy. They lobbied government leaders on far-ranging issues including immigration, sustainability, employee mental health benefits, and civic engagement, according to public records.
Starbucks has spent roughly $1 million lobbying every year since 2017. Ongoing topics in years past have been tax reform (including issues related to foreign income), veterans' employment, and issues related to food donation.
Spending more than half a million dollars on lobbying in two quarters is not uncommon for a chain of Starbucks' size. McDonald's spent $940,000 so far this year, while Taco Bell and KFC parent company Yum Brands spent $620,000.
Starbucks also pays annual dues of more than $50,000 to three trade organizations, including the National Restaurant Association, which use part of these funds for lobbying purposes.
The politics of Starbucks
Over the last decade, Starbucks' leadership has publicly embraced a number of social causes, especially under Schultz's leadership.
Schultz grew Starbucks from a small regional chain to the international coffee giant it is today. As CEO, he spoke out against national debt, as well as in support of same-sex marriage and bipartisan leadership. Before recent corporate reckonings linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, Starbucks attempted to address racial inequality with an ill-fated 2015 campaign in which employees were instructed to write "Race Together" on cups.
Schultz became even more outspoken in 2016, endorsing Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. Clinton reportedly planned to appoint Schultz to be secretary of labor had she been elected president.
Following Trump's victory, Schultz stepped down as CEO to focus on Starbucks' "social missions" as chairman. In January 2017, he spoke out to highlight Starbucks' support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, hiring refugees, and building "bridges, not walls" with Mexico. Schultz finally cut ties with Starbucks in June 2018, reigniting rumors that he was considering his own presidential bid.
The rumors proved correct, with Schultz later announcing he was "seriously considering" running as an independent candidate. Schultz told Business Insider in 2019 that he was "as concerned with the current left-leaning tilt of the Democratic Party towards socialism" as he was about the chances of Trump being reelected.
Ultimately, Schultz decided against a full-blown presidential campaign and endorsed Biden in September.
Starbucks gained a reputation of being a "liberal" brand under Schultz's leadership, despite the company's lack of political donations. The chain has faced protests from the right numerous times, most notably when the company pledged to hire 10,000 refugees in 2017. Starbucks has also been the subject of a number of political hoaxes, such as the viral claim that the chain was giving away free coffee to undocumented immigrants.
Starbucks current CEO Kevin Johnson has been less politically outspoken than Schultz.
However, the chain has continued to emphasize efforts on social issues such as sustainability, veterans' mental health, and pay equity. Starbucks was also one of the first national chains to require customers to cover their faces in stores, at a time when many states and cities lacked mask mandates.
"Voting, while essential, is just one step toward addressing many of the issues in front of us as a society. ... The bottom line being: Starbucks will not wait for change, we will make change of our own," Johnson wrote in a letter to employees in August.
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