As U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. finished his second month as chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, he got the chance of a pro-labor lifetime: to grill the former head of Starbucks before a national audience.
At a hearing on Wednesday, Sanders called on Howard Schultz, who recently ended his third stint as CEO of the coffee company, to take accountability for what the Vermont senator called “the most aggressive and illegal union busting campaign in the modern history of our country.”
Schultz, who appeared at the hearing under threat of subpoena, remains on the board of Starbucks, which has received more than 500 unfair labor practice charges and 80 complaints of federal labor law violations filed by the National Labor Relations Board. Since workers at the company began organizing to unionize in the fall of 2021, judges have found that Starbucks broke the law 130 times across six states. Violations included illegal firing of workers who were exercising their legal right to form a union to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.
In his most high-profile moment yet as chair of the committee, Sanders opened the hearing by highlighting — as he has many times before — the extreme economic inequality that plagues the United States.
In response to economic turmoil, Sanders said, the trade union movement in the U.S. has seen a revitalization, with the number of union elections occurring across America having risen 53% between 2021 and 2022. In May 2022, Starbucks workers in South Burlington were among those organizing to unionize, becoming the first Starbucks in Vermont to file for a union election.
During the hearing, Sanders applauded the efforts of union organizers at Starbucks, who, despite resistance from the corporation, have held union elections at more than 360 stores across 40 states over the last year and a half, 83% of which resulted in a union victory.
“These workers know, as I do, that union workers earn 20% more, on average, than non-union workers,” Sanders said. “These workers are out there struggling today to achieve dignity and justice on the job.”
Yet, despite the fact that hundreds of Starbucks stores have voted to unionize across the country, the Starbucks corporation has not signed a single contract with any of them.
On March 1, an administrative judge in New York found that Starbucks took part in “egregious and widespread misconduct” toward workers at a store in Buffalo, New York, the first location to unionize, ruling that company illegally bribed, surveilled and fired employees as part of an attempt to stall and bust a budding union. The ruling mandates that Starbucks reinstate multiple fired employees and issue pay and damages to other workers who the judge ruled had suffered retaliation from the company that affected their compensation.
“The fundamental issue we are confronting today,” Sanders said, “is whether we have a system of justice that applies to all, or whether billionaires and large corporations can break the law with impunity.”
At the hearing, Sanders asked Schultz whether he intends to obey the American laws that protect workers and commit to exchanging proposals with union organizers within 14 days of the hearing. Organizers in Buffalo have been waiting more than 450 days for the company to review their contract.
Sanders also asked Schultz whether he was aware of National Labor Relations Board judges’ rulings that showed Starbucks has violated federal labor law over 100 times over the past 18 months — more than any other corporation in the United States.
“What Starbucks is doing is not only trying to break unions, but even worse,” Sanders said. “They are trying to break the spirit of workers who are struggling to improve their lives. And that is unforgivable.”
Schultz insisted the company was not in the wrong.
“Starbucks Coffee Company, unequivocally — let me set the tone for this very early on — has not broken the law,” Schultz said. “I support the law, and I also take offense with you categorizing me or Starbucks as a union buster when that is not true.”
Although Schultz vehemently rejected allegations of union busting, he admitted to having a “preference” against unions.
"We want to treat everyone with respect and dignity," Schultz said. "However, I have the right, and the company has the right, to have a preference. And our preference is to maintain the direct relationship we've had with our employees, who we call partners."
For U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Schultz's testimony faltered beside overwhelming evidence from the entities charged with enforcing American labor laws.
“It is akin to someone who has been ticketed for speeding 100 times saying, ‘I’ve never violated the law because every single time — every single time — the cop got it wrong,’” Murphy said.
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