Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is testifying Wednesday morning before a Senate committee chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders, who used his time to grill the billionaire on the coffee giant’s scorched-earth union-busting campaign that has drawn hundreds of unfair labor practice charges and dozens of complaints from the NLRB.
In his opening statement at the hearing, Sanders ran through the litany of allegations against Starbucks and said the company has launched “the most aggressive and illegal union-busting campaign in the modern history of our country.”
“That union-busting campaign has been led by Howard Schultz,” the senator said.
“What is outrageous to me is not only Starbucks’ anti-union activities and their willingness to break the law—it is their calculated and intentional efforts to stall, stall, and stall,” Sanders continued. “They understand that the turnover rate at Starbucks is high. They understand that if workers do not see success in getting a contract and improved wages they may get discouraged. So what Starbucks is doing is not only trying to break unions, but even worse. They are trying to break the spirit of workers who are struggling to improve their lives. And that is unforgivable.”
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Sanders asked Schultz a series of specific questions about his role in Starbucks’ attempts to undercut unionization efforts, including whether he intends to comply with a recent NLRB ruling ordering him to record and distribute a video informing workers of their right to organize under federal law.
Schultz refused to make such a commitment, repeatedly contending that Starbucks has not broken the law—a claim that at one point prompted audible laughter in the hearing room. The billionaire also tried to downplay his role in company decision-making related to the union drive, telling Sanders that he was not involved in any move to terminate or discipline a worker for supporting unionization.
When Sanders asked whether Starbucks would pledge to exchange proposals with union negotiators within two weeks in order to jump start stalled contract talks, Schultz demurred, insisting that the company is already negotiating in good faith with workers, who are demanding a higher starting wage, 100% employer-covered healthcare, and other benefits.
Schultz also defended Starbucks’ management for repeatedly walking out of scheduled contract talks with union negotiators, claiming that the company will only agree to bargain if everyone taking part is physically present, not joining via Zoom or any other virtual platform.
But on Tuesday, the NLRB said Starbucks’ in-person-only condition for contract talks is a violation of federal labor law.
Following Schultz’s appearance, the committee heard from a separate panel of witnesses, including current Starbucks worker Maggie Carter and former employee Jaysin Saxton, who was fired after he led a union drive at a store in Augusta, Georgia. Last April, that location became the first Starbucks shop in Georgia to unionize.
“Starbucks and big corporations have a lot of power and money and they are willing to pull out all the stops to deny workers a voice and a seat at the table in a union,” Saxton said Wednesday. “That’s why I am thrilled to be here today—to have witnessed firsthand Howard Schultz being held to account for his company’s illegal behavior.”
“We are coming together to demand better pay, affordable health coverage, and stronger safety procedures,” Saxton continued. “I’m proud to be a leader of this new labor movement. We’re taking on corporate power and fighting for all of us.”
The NLRB filed a complaint in December alleging that Saxton was unlawfully terminated for engaging in protected union activity. Saxton is one of more than 60 union organizers fired by Starbucks since December 2021, when workers in Buffalo, New York voted to form the company’s first union in the U.S.
Since then, nearly 300 Starbucks locations have opted to unionize in the face of aggressive pushback from the company, which has slashed workers’ hours, withheld raises, denied new benefits to unionized shops, and shut down entire stores in an effort to crush organizing momentum.
“To Starbucks’ new CEO, Laxman Narasinham, you have an opportunity to chart a different course, to truly make Starbucks the ‘different kind of company’ Schultz promised, but failed, epically, to produce,” Carter said during her testimony. “This is a chance for your company to stop its unprecedented campaign of union busting and instead partner with us, your so-called partners, and our union to build a company that truly lives up to its stated progressive values.”
Starbucks Workers United said that more than 50 Starbucks employees from across the U.S. traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the hearing, which comes after weeks of stonewalling from company executives.
Schultz, who has been accused of nearly 100 labor law violations since early 2022, finally agreed to testify earlier this month under threat of subpoena. Schultz stepped down as Starbucks’ chief executive on March 20, though he remains on the company’s board of directors.
“The HELP Committee intends to make clear that in America we must not have a two-tiered justice system in which billionaires and large corporations can break the law with impunity, while working-class people are held accountable for their actions,” Sanders said.
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