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Top Biden-tied connected firm cuts ties with Starbucks amid union outcry

A top Democratic consulting firm with deep ties to the Biden administration was working on behalf of Starbucks until last month, even as the coffee giant was pushing back against union efforts at several of its locations.

SKDK, a public affairs and political consulting shop co-founded by longtime White House adviser Anita Dunn, has listed Starbucks as a client for years. More recently, it was part of a larger campaign, including Starbucks and other entities, to invest in Black-owned businesses and close the racial wealth gap. The firm’s recent work coincided with Starbucks’ efforts to fight back against employees trying to create a union in various locations — and with the president’s increasingly vocal advocacy for workers seeking to unionize.

Those efforts resulted in staff at 57 locations voting to unionize and with the coffee giant deploying increasingly aggressive measures to dissuade others from joining them. Starbucks has been accused of promising increased benefits and better work conditions for those who refrained from unionizing, surveilling employees’ union activities and terminating some unionized workers.

SKDK’s work for Starbucks comes as the Democratic Party is mulling whether to ban its consultants from participating in anti-union activities. Though the consulting firm said that it did not help Starbucks on labor issues, its work for the company could potentially complicate the Biden administration’s increasingly assertive pivot toward supporting unionization efforts across workforces.

Dunn is set to return to the White House as senior adviser and assistant to President Joe Biden after serving in the administration at the beginning of his term last year and following work on Biden’s campaign. She rejoins a number of other SKDK alums who are also in the administration, including Kate Berner, White House deputy communications director, and Herbie Ziskend, senior adviser for communications to Vice President Kamala Harris.

Starbucks currently faces a number of accusations of retaliation from its workers. As recently as Friday, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint out of its Buffalo, New York office, finding the company had violated the National Labor Relations Act, which grants most private-sector employees the right to form or join unions. Starbucks has denied the allegations in the complaint.

SKDK and Starbucks ended their relationship last month, according to SKDK partner Jill Zuckman. In a statement, Zuckman reaffirmed the firm’s support for Starbucks and did not directly address its ongoing labor dispute.

“Starbucks has been a longtime client of SKDK and we have great admiration for the company,” she said in the statement. “Over the years, we provided guidance on corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion, particularly following the 2018 arrest of two Black men in a Philadelphia store, the company’s response to the 2020 murder of George Floyd, and its support for its employees during the height of Covid.”

Zuckman declined to answer whether Starbucks’ reported efforts to suppress the unionization of its employees was the reason for the split with what she called a “longtime client.” She later added that the firm did not work on labor issues for Starbucks.

A Starbucks spokesperson, Jaime Riley, said SKDK was not the one to decide to end the “longstanding relationship.”

Last week, Biden, Harris and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh had a White House meeting with union organizers, including Laura Garza, a representative of Starbucks Workers United. There, Biden thanked the attendees for their leadership, according to a readout of the meeting released by the White House.

In a letter to presidential counselor Steve Ricchetti the same day, Starbucks senior vice president AJ Jones II said the company was “deeply concerned” that Workers United was invited to the meeting, while official Starbucks representatives were not. He pointed to the company’s employee benefits and compensation, adding that Starbucks has “a drastically more positive vision” for its employees and company.

“I am requesting the opportunity to meet with you and bring a diverse, representative group of Starbucks partners from across the country to the White House so that they can share points of view and experiences that are vastly different from those presented by Workers United,” Jones wrote.

Asked about SKDK’s work with Starbucks, Starbucks Workers United’s organizing committee leader, Michelle Eisen, said in a statement that, “as more of Starbucks’ anti-union behavior comes to light, I’m glad to see that more people are beginning to hold Starbucks accountable for their actions.”

The White House’s relationship with SKDK has been the subject of criticism in the past. Dunn earlier entered the administration at a salary just below the threshold that would require her to disclose clients. And unlike registered federal lobbyists, who must share some information publicly, the firm’s roster of clients is largely obscure.

Jeff Hauser, founder of the watchdog group Revolving Door Project, considers there to be “an inherent conflict of interest, to be seeking counsel from people who are seeking to divert the administration from fulfilling its mandate.”

“We don’t know how many other corporate clients SKDK has, who should be the subject of enforcement scrutiny and whether or not the Biden administration will pursue all those enforcement opportunities as far as the law permits,” Hauser said.

In a statement, a White House official emphasized Biden’s commitment to union rights, pointing to the recent meeting with union leaders, and the administration’s ethics policies.

“The president believes that every worker should have the choice to join a union, and has fought for that right over his whole career while opposing union busting,” said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates. “And experts have praised this administration for having the strongest ethics policies of any in American history.”

SKDK’s relationship with Starbucks is not the only case in which a Democratic-aligned consulting firm has worked with a client amid that client’s alleged anti-union activity. Global Strategy Group, which was a polling partner of the pro-Biden super PAC Priorities USA, last week ended its relationship with Amazon. Unlike SKDK, GSG actually did work assisting Amazon in fending off unionization efforts at a Staten Island warehouse, for which it apologized.

SKDK has also done work with Amazon, having helped the online retail giant with efforts to create a New York City headquarters, which the company ultimately abandoned. According to a person familiar with the arrangement, Amazon was still a client of SKDK as of 2021. Zuckman declined to comment when asked about SKDK’s work with Amazon.