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As employees at Starbucks cafés around the country ramped up their efforts to unionize this past winter—on the heels of a successful campaign at a café in Buffalo, New York—they were met with fierce resistance from their parent company. But they had some powerful allies elsewhere. More than six dozen investors—representing some $3.4 trillion in assets—signed an open letter to the company in March urging it to adopt a neutral stance toward labor organizers and negotiate quickly with workers who vote to unionize. “We believe that when workers’ rights are ensured, their interests represented, and their needs properly communicated,” the letter said, “companies and workers alike benefit.”
The effort was led by Jonas Kron, chief advocacy officer at Boston-based Trillium Asset Management. One of the world’s oldest socially responsible investment firms, which manages $5 billion in assets, has long used its stake in corporations to push them toward ESG (environmental, social, and governance) goals, often having to do with sustainability and diversity. The firm also uses shareholder advocacy to press corporations on specific worker-related issues, from gay rights to paid sick leave to abortion-related benefits. But in the past year, Kron has been using the firm to empower workers more broadly and directly.
“We realized that it’s one thing for investors to tell companies, you need to pay your workers more or you need to provide paid time off to vote,” Kron says. “That’s important, but what’s most effective is [having] a well-functioning labor marketplace—and that means workers being in a position to actually advocate for what they think will make a good workplace.”
In addition to the Starbucks campaign, he organized a letter to executives at the New York Times Company in February, calling out the paper for resisting its tech workers’ unionization push. (They voted to unionize a month later.) And he penned one in October to the world’s largest eyeglass maker, EssilorLuxottica, on behalf of investors representing $500 billion in assets, asking the company to cease union-busting activities with regard to employees in its Georgia facility. Trillium also reached out to both Mondelez International and Deere & Company when their workers went on strike in 2021, urging the companies to negotiate in good faith.
Though some of these campaigns have seen more success than others—Mondelez and Deere & Company reached agreements with their unions; Starbucks senior leadership met with Trillium to discuss its concerns, but continues to resist unionization—Kron points out that open letters are only the first salvo in a sustained shareholder advocacy campaign, which can also involve shareholder proposals. In other words, he’s playing the long game. “Labor laws in this country are tilted quite heavily in favor of management,” he says. “We don’t have a level playing field. And markets function better with a level playing field.”