Starbucks is trying to stir participation in Seattle’s crucial City Council elections. But the coffee chain is taking a different approach than another Seattle-based behemoth.
While Amazon has made national headlines for dropping more than $1 million into a political-action committee (PAC) backing pro-business candidates just before the Nov. 5 elections, Starbucks is attempting to activate the voters who spend time in its stores with a letter to employees and a drive encouraging customers to cast ballots.
The Wake Up and Vote campaign aligns with other social-engagement drives by Starbucks across the country in recent years, which have included nudging employees to register to vote. The company has a special relationship with politics in Seattle, however, having opposed council incumbents on policies such as last year’s head tax and having contributed $30,000 last month to the same PAC as Amazon.
The letter to baristas doesn’t name any candidates but echoes some rhetoric used by the pro-business PAC. It warns that public safety has declined in the city and asks Starbucks employees for help, telling them: “Use your voice to advocate for change.”
“I can imagine somebody coming up with this strategy to achieve two goals at the same time” — to enhance the company’s civic brand while also influencing the elections, said Abhinav Gupta, a University of Washington professor who studies businesses and politics. “From a lot of research, we know that rarely works out.”
In the letter to employees last month, Starbucks executive vice president John Kelly blamed public-safety concerns for some store closures and highlighted the company’s philanthropic work with homeless parents and children. Kelly included nothing about which candidates businesses like Starbucks are supporting.
In an interview, Kelly clarified that Starbucks has closed a only small number of Seattle stores, usually relocating them nearby, and has done so for various reasons.
“Your vote, your voice — whatever your opinion and choice may be — have never been more critical,” he wrote in the letter. “Regardless of one’s political views, everyone in Seattle has a right to a functioning and accountable government. Now is the time to demand one.”
Wayne Barnett, executive director of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, said only communications that support or oppose particular candidates must be reported as political activity.
In calling for political change in his letter, was Kelly urging employees to help unseat incumbents like Councilmember Kshama Sawant? Not quite, he says. “Every election is about change and I don’t think anybody thinks the status quo in Seattle is acceptable, when you have hundreds of children tonight in 30-degree weather sleeping in cars around King County,” he said in the interview.
The voting campaign at 10 Seattle stores Monday won’t have a political bent, Kelly said. Baristas will remind customers about the elections and tell them where ballot drop boxes are located, the Starbucks executive said.
Starbucks is telling its baristas to stay neutral, he said. They’ll tell customers who ask about the company’s views, “That we’re not political and … all we’re doing is simply encouraging people to vote.”
Voters should apply skepticism, said Sage Wilson, spokesman for union-backed Working Washington. Starbucks and the business groups the company supports have opposed some pro-worker policies, including Seattle’s $15-per-hour minimum wage and secure-scheduling rules, Wilson said.
“They have a clear record of direct engagement on some of the biggest issues, so it’s hard to see something like this letter to employees as neutral,” he added.
The language in Kelly’s letter puts Starbucks in a political gray area, said Cindy Black, executive director of Fix Democracy First.
“I think they might be trying to see how far they can push the envelope,” Black said.
Wilson said he doesn’t expect Starbucks employees to vote in a bloc. “People don’t like being told what their priorities should be by the company that employs them,” Wilson said.
Kelly said Starbucks shouldn’t be lumped together in Seattle politics under a “big-business” label, and Gupta agreed the company has engaged on civic issues more than others.
“I’ll be curious to see how this approach fares,” the professor said.