U.S. Media Helping Corporate America Union Bust, Repeal Criminal Reforms, by Mindlessly Citing ‘Crime’ as Excuse for Closures
Is crime one of many factors when making business decisions? Of course. Is it quickly becoming a catch-all to mask corporate mismanagement and misdeeds? Absolutely.
How do we know when “crime” is truly the cause of a corporate decision, or simply a pretext? Does it matter? Are any American reporters curious at all about interrogating the possibility of bad faith on the part of CEOs and corporate spokespeople who cry “crime” every time they close stores in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that fundamentally reshaped urban retail and restaurant economics?
Evidently not, as increasingly, “crime” is being used as a catch-all to justify store closures and layoffs that would otherwise upset the public and spook investors.
Last week, Starbucks announced it was closing 16 stores due to crime and “store safety” issues. As Maxwell Parrott reported for In These Times, two of the Seattle locations had already voted to unionize, and one shop in Portland is slated for a union vote in August. Starbucks union representatives immediately cried foul. Marina Multhaup, legal counsel for Starbucks Workers United (SBWU, told Parrott, “Recently in Seattle, Starbucks partners at seven stores went on strike partially in protest of safety conditions. Then Starbucks announced it was closing eight stores in the [Pacific Northwest] area. If Starbucks truly cared about its partners’ safety it would bargain about ways to ensure their protection, not displace workers by closing stores.”
The workers don’t deny safety is an issue. Indeed, it has long been true given Starbucks’ ubiquity in high traffic areas—and American society's widespread indifference to human suffering—that the burden of dealing with a rise in poverty and a lack of a social safety net would fall on Starbucks’ low wage workers. Workers have long complained about how cashiers and baristas are dealing with the social problems of homelessness, mental health issues and substance use. But rather than having a dialogue about how management can assist in managing the inevitable results of runaway inequality, management has chosen to simply shutter problem stores and then run to the media complaining about soft-on-crime politicians, giving us a torrent of headlines from rightwing outlets basking in the glow of alleged liberal hypocrisy and comeuppance.
“Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz blames Dem-run cities for store closures,” gloats the New York Post. “Starbucks CEO Blames Woke Elected Officials For 16 Store Closures In Dangerous Cities,” proclaims the Federalist. It’s red meat for a base that is already looking to demonize Democrats for modest reforms, or merely perceived reforms, aimed at reducing the harms of America’s carceral state.
Last year I documented the widespread credulity at Walgreens corporate claiming they closed stores in San Francisco because of crime, despite the fact that the company announced hundreds of closings in 2019, prior to the alleged crime spike, and despite closing even more stores in New York during the same time period, despite no such shoplifting wave having said to exist. And despite the fact that there had, in this time period, been no corresponding closing of any CVS stores.
It’s not, of course, that crime isn’t an issue for front-facing wage workers. It is and always has been. The question is how much of this is new, how much of it is a catch-all cover, and how much of the focus on “crime” as a discrete series of moral failings on the part of the The Criminal Element omits alternatives other than simply throwing more police and longer sentences at social ills.
Right-wing media outlets cannot get enough of this narrative. For the better part of two years they’ve taken every one of these corporate press releases and used it to promote their “Go woke, go broke” rallying cry. Fox News, Daily Wire and Breitbart can’t run enough stories about supposedly “woke” corporations suffering from “Democratic cities’ “high crime rates” in “Biden’s America.” This is largely the point: Corporate strategists know full well if they hammer mayors from the right on the topic of crime that, in the aggregate, it will pressure them to back more police, stiffer penalties, repeal of reforms, and the reinstatement (or escalation) of cash bail—all policies every major business, retail, and restaurant group spends millions lobbying for.
Omitted from this simplistic narrative is that urban retail and restaurant markets are still way down from their pre-pandemic numbers. White-collar workers are not coming back into the office. This, combined with an inverse rise in rents in most major cities, has seen countless brick-and-mortar operations shutting down for reasons that have little to do with crime. Recently, Hale and Hearty Soup unceremoniously shut down all of its 16 New York City locations. Data from OpenTable shows that meal reservations in Seattle—where Starbucks is headquartered, and the plurality of its closings are taking place—are down 44.4 percent from 2019. Citing higher rents, competition from Amazon and other online retailers, and low-end outlets like Dollar General, UBS recently forecasted that between 40,000 to 50,000 retail stores in the United States will be closing over the next five years. Are all of these closures pinned on “crime”?
What if crime and the decline of urban commerce shared a common cause—a once-in-a-century pandemic—rather than the former being entirely responsible for the latter? Is any reporter interested in asking this basic question, rather than simply regurgitating self-serving corporate P.R. copy?
And then, in the case of Starbucks, there’s the fact that Schultz has been openly hostile to the unionization drive that is sweeping the company. Schultz said in June that he will never embrace the union, and Starbucks has refused to negotiate contracts with workers across the country. In fact, this refusal to bargain in good faith has sparked strikes at numerous shops. In May, Starbucks even announced new benefits, but only for non-union stores, a clear effort to retaliate workers for voting “yes” to unionization. It’s not a stretch to think that a CEO who has proven a vociferous opponent to unionization would factor in the existence of unions when deciding which stores to shutter. At the very least, reporters should show some curiosity about whether unionization could be one factor, rather than simply take his rhetoric at face value.
Target, Starbucks, Walgreens and other Blue Chip brick and mortar outfits have every incentive to pin all of their downturns on “crime.” It’s no-brainer, pro forma excuse making, which is obvious to anyone who knows the first thing about PR. Corporations have absolutely zero incentive to not blame every action they have that would otherwise be perceived as a troubling trend on “crime.” This serves a dual purpose: covering their ass for bad economic choices, while contributing to the fervor around crime that will strengthen their real estate investments and crack down on low level “quality of life crimes” that corporate America routinely lobbies for as a matter of course.
It makes sense for this to become the default line of corporate America moving forward. What doesn’t have to happen is local and national media simply repeating these claims at face value. Is crime one of many factors? Almost certainly. Is it the only, or even main factor? Given other trends and data points, not likely. It shouldn’t take scrappy, underfunded unions to be the first party to broach a potential ulterior motive for Starbucks store closures. It should, instead, be the default position of any reporter when analyzing these pat, simplistic reasons for closing down stores in the politically charged climate Howard Schultz and Starbucks executives find themselves.