Discover more from The Pourover
Media Critic Adam Johnson on Starbucks, Crime, and Store Closures
The writer and podcast host on how the "crime" and "safety" justifications used by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz hide the real reasons for the closures.
In the wake of the recent news regarding Howard Schultz’ claims that Starbucks would close 16 big city locations due to concerns over safety and crime, it was interesting to see how many media outlets simply took the CEO at his word with very little pushback.
Schultz went on to blame the leaders of the large, Democrat-controlled cities for “abdicat[ing] their responsibility in fighting crime and addressing mental health,” according to a leaked video posted to Twitter. “I don’t have to spend too much time on what’s going on in the country and how America is becoming unsafe, but you all read the press release over the last couple of days that we are beginning to close stores that are not unprofitable. It has shocked me that one of the primary concerns that our retail partners have is their own personal safety.”
It didn’t go unnoticed that several of the stores earmarked for closure are either unionized or in the process of unionizing, and in fact the union has filed a labor complaint in response to the news.
While researching these stories for the Coffee News Roundup, I read Adam Johnson’s piece for his Substack, The Column, entitled ‘U.S. Media Helping Corporate America Union Bust, Repeal Criminal Reforms, by Mindlessly Citing ‘Crime’ as Excuse for Closures’. Johnson, a writer and host of the excellent media criticism podcast Citations Needed, has spoken before about how corporations use the fear of crime as a justification for closing stores that they were going to close anyway.
“Whether or not a store closes because of crime is in some sense an empirical question, it's something that can be shown,” Johnson told me. “Theoretically, a corporation could show the internal crime data or crime reports, could say, well, this number goes here, this line goes here, for us the juice is no longer worth the squeeze. But no one ever really does that. It's just this thing they assert.”
I spoke with Johnson about Schultz’ words, how the media chose to react, and what safety- and crime-based justifications mean for the people actually affected by them.
[This interview has been lightly edited and condensed]
I know you’ve spoken in the past about crime as an excuse corporations use when closing stores, especially in regards to Walgreens and shoplifting. Could you give me your thoughts on the ‘crime’ excuse being offered by Howard Schultz for the Starbucks store closures?
Well it's a very self serving, evergreen excuse for doing things that corporations don't typically like to do, whether it be shutting down stores—in the case of Walgreens, shutting down pharmacies that provide an essential service to communities—or whether it's shutting down stores that happen to have a wildly disproportionate amount of stores that are unionizing or have unionized, crime, crime is sort of a skeleton key, it can be whatever you want it to be.
That isn't to say that crime isn't a factor, it probably is one of many. But whether or not it's the main factor, or as it’s being presented, the only factor, it strikes me as an incredibly convenient excuse, given the current political climate around crime.
And I think any journalist worth their salt should say, okay, so this store closes, they say because of crime, maybe there are other reasons. Maybe crime is one of four reasons, but what are the other three reasons? Why are we only getting this kind of one dimensional narrative about crime, which sort of fits in the headline.
Again, it's very convenient, because of course it’s complicated; crime is an issue, and indeed the Starbucks union representatives have said that public safety is an issue. Less so quote unquote “crime”, more so just in general handling things like houselessness and substance abuse on their premises. And they're not getting any support from corporate on that.
And it's not in good faith, because it's not like they're having a dialogue with the workers or the union. They're just shutting down stores unilaterally and saying, sorry, you're out of a job now. You're going to get displaced to a place 50 miles away, because crime. It’s become this very pat kind of catch-all corporate excuse that I think requires further interrogation because it is so self-serving and fits a very specific political agenda.
Do you think there’s a link between the unionization wave and these decisions to close stores?
Yeah but again, how do I prove that? If Howard Schultz says, I'm shutting down six locations, and three of them are unionizing, how can I possibly verify that it’s due to crime? Am I looking at internal emails from corporate? No, that’s just something they’re asserting.
If the union said, Starbucks is closing stores because they're unionizing, and using crime as a pretext, and is not negotiating in good faith when it comes to issues of employee safety, this would all be put in scare quotes. This would not be something that is asserted as fact, it would be “union alleges” or “union says”.
But when Howard Schultz says it’s crime it's just taken for granted. It's a totally asymmetrical relationship because corporations are viewed as these politically neutral actors who reluctantly shut down stores and say aw shucks.
Anyone who knows anything about how real estate prices are working in these big cities, and how brick and mortar stores are operating right now knows that there's tons of things that are shutting down en masse for reasons that have nothing to do with crime. They have to do with people going back to the office, they have to do with patterns of people moving out of the cities, they have to do with increased rents. There are other reasons that are obviously informing these business decisions and those reasons are just not even mentioned.
Schultz said in the leaked video that he had heard from employees that safety was a big issue. But then these unionizing Starbucks baristas are also saying that they’re short staffed, they’re being moved around to different stores—do you think that part of it is that it’s easier to just close rather than try to sort it out?
Howard Schultz mentions this—this has been going on for years—that Starbucks is by virtue of its ubiquity and the availability of its restrooms in a country that just doesn’t provide public restrooms, a place where people with mental health and housing issues will gravitate.
I worked as a restaurant bartender in New York City, and we’d see this weekly. Obviously, it's a little different, but the same idea. And this is one of the ways workers are pitted against each other, that we basically have an antagonistic relationship. This was one of the downsides of a lot of the COVID enforcement too, basically you have poor people becoming cops and monitoring other poor people. And you have minimum wage baristas having an antagonistic relationship with people who are suffering from mental health and housing issues.
The reason why the union reps cry foul is because [Starbucks] didn't engage the employees of the respective stores saying how can we improve public safety, they just shut it down. So even though they're touching on a real issue, they're doing so in a very cynical and self serving and bad faith way.
Starbucks stock price is falling, foot traffic to cafes is down, it does all feel quite reactive.
I mean, it makes sense. Look at the percentage of people returning to offices, and look at the Open Table reservation data for reservations in Seattle. It's down 44% from pre-pandemic. It logically follows that there would be a corresponding reduction in business at a place like Starbucks, which has many of the same inputs.
But of course they can't just come out and say, Well, you know, unionization is spooking our investors so we're trying to clamp down on unions, and also our business is down in general, so we're just going to shut these doors. They can't say that. So what do they say? It’s the big bad crime.