Bernie Sanders Is Putting Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz In the Hot Seat Over Union Busting
Under pressure, Schultz will face questioning in front of a congressional committee headed by Bernie Sanders—the latest in a line of billionaire CEOs to be taken to task for anti-labor behavior.
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After more than a year of citations over labor law violations around the country, Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz will have to answer tough questions from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and other members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee later this month.
“In America, workers have the constitutional right to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining to improve their wages and working conditions,” said Sanders, who chairs the HELP Committee. “Unfortunately Starbucks, under Mr. Schultz’s leadership, has done everything possible to prevent that from happening.”
Since December 2021, workers at nearly 300 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize with Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) despite a relentless union-busting campaign by the company that has included retaliatory firings and store closings.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has cited the coffee giant with over 900 violations of federal labor law since the union drive began. Starbucks has consistently denied any wrongdoing. Last week, NLRB administrative law judge Michael A. Rosas issued a sweeping decision finding that Starbucks broke the law hundreds of times in Buffalo, New York alone through “egregious and widespread misconduct demonstrating a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights.”
Schultz initially refused to testify before the HELP Committee, instead offering to send other Starbucks executives in his place, but reversed course on Tuesday — a day before the committee was poised to vote to subpoena him. He is set to testify on March 29.
“My hope is he’s asked questions that aren’t so easy,” said Sara Mughal, a shift supervisor and SBWU member at a unionized Starbucks in Hopewell, New Jersey. “He’s spent the last year being asked questions by reporters that are going so easy on him. He talks about how he cares so much about his employees, but at the same time everything he’s been doing has shown the opposite, and it’s just kind of brushed off in these interviews.”
Eager to hear Schultz explain his company’s illegal behavior, Starbucks union activists recently started the hashtag #DearHoward to express what they would ask the multi-billionaire CEO if they could question him under oath.
“My coworkers and I would like to hear how he thinks he’s going to get away with not embracing unions in his company when we’re here,” Mughal said, responding to Schultz’s recent statement that he doesn’t think there is a place for unions in Starbucks. “We voted to unionize and we’re in his company, so it’s not a choice at this point.”
Mughal told In These Times that although she and her coworkers voted to unionize last May, they have had only one bargaining session with management so far due to the company’s ongoing stalling tactics.
“If I could ask him anything, I would want to know what he’s so afraid of,” said Russell Dahlman, an SBWU organizer and barista in Chicago’s Greektown neighborhood. “All we want to do is sit down and negotiate a contract that’s fair, that recognizes the humanity of all of us and makes our community safe.”
A union representation election is scheduled to be held at the Greektown store on March 31, two days after Schultz’s appearance before the HELP Committee. Dahlman’s coworker and fellow SBWU organizer, Lillie Elling, said that what the CEO gets asked is not as important as “how workers and organizers respond” to his testimony, because “the power is with the workers.”
Will Westlake, an SBWU organizer in Buffalo, said he hopes senators on the HELP Committee will ask Schultz about the “psychological warfare” the company has waged on pro-union employees.
“They have engaged in tactics that are really designed to deteriorate the mental health of individuals and target, harass, gaslight and fire them for things that aren’t real,” Westlake told In These Times. “When you engage in those kinds of tactics with people who maybe were already dealing with anxiety or depression, there’s extremely negative consequences.”
Starbucks terminated Westlake last October as alleged retaliation for his union activism. He was told the reason for his firing was that a mental health awareness pin—which he wore in honor of a coworker who died by suicide — violated the company’s dress code.
Asked about Westlake’s firing, a Starbucks representative told In These Times that “No Starbucks partner has been or will be disciplined for supporting or engaging in lawful union activity — but interest in a union does not exempt partners from following policies and procedures that apply to all partners.”
The Camp Road café in Buffalo where Westlake worked narrowly voted against unionizing in late 2021 amid widespread union busting. But as part of Judge Rosas’s decision last week, Starbucks was ordered to bargain with the store’s workers without holding a repeat union election because the intensity of the company’s anti-union campaign “likely left a lasting impact as to the importance of voting against representation.”
The judge also ordered the company to pay Westlake in full for times management ended his shifts early for wearing the mental health pin. Westlake said there will be a separate NLRB trial next month deciding whether he should be reinstated.
Since becoming chair of the Senate HELP Committee in January, Sanders has been making billionaire CEOs uncomfortable by using the committee’s power to shine a national spotlight on corporate greed.
Last month, the committee asked Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel to testify about the pharmaceutical company’s plan to jack up the price of its Covid vaccine by 400%. Immediately afterward, Moderna announced the vaccine would remain free after all — which Sanders sarcastically called an “amazing coincidence.”
One of the Vermont senator’s main priorities since assuming the committee’s chairmanship has been exposing Starbucks’s illegal union busting and calling Schultz to task.
“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 this week. “I look forward to hearing from Mr. Schultz as to when he intends to end his illegal anti-union activities and begin signing fair first contracts with the unions.”
Schultz, who was once rumored to be Hillary Clinton’s choice for Secretary of Labor had she won the 2016 presidential election, has quickly become organized labor’s arch enemy.
“It speaks to how CEOs like Howard, who have a really aggrandized self-image, risk not just destroying the reputation of their company, but their personal reputation as well,” Westlake said of the social consequences of union busting.
On Wednesday, at Sanders’s invitation, the HELP Committee heard testimony from three national labor leaders who each took aim at the Starbucks CEO.
“It’s ridiculous that the future of tens of thousands of Starbucks workers is up to the whims of just one person, Howard Schultz, who continues to oversee a company that breaks the law without sufficient consequence,” said SEIU president Mary Kay Henry.
AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler said she was glad Schultz finally agreed to testify before the committee. “How many hundreds of thousands of baristas showed up every day for Starbucks in the middle of a pandemic? How many of those workers helped him make vast sums of money?” she asked. “It’s the least he can do to show up here and talk about an issue that is so important to their lives.”
“There are no meaningful consequences for businesses and CEOs like Howard Schultz when they break our laws,” explained Teamsters president Sean O’Brien, who pointed to the need for Congress to pass the pro-union PRO Act. “When any employer — be it the rail carriers, package companies, or coffee shops — gets away with repeated abuse of American workers, the legislators who let it happen are complicit in these crimes.”
(O’Brien also made headlines for getting into a testy exchange with Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma, an anti-union Republican and multimillionaire businessman who serves on the HELP Committee.)
Mughal is hopeful that the committee’s interest in questioning Schultz signals the beginning of more robust action on a national level to hold Starbucks accountable. “Even if not, we’re still going to fight,” she said. “But my hope is that a government that’s saying they’re so pro-labor would take real action to protect our rights when they’re blatantly being trampled on.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.