Senator Bernie Sanders, who has roundly criticized former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz over the company’s blatant attempts to shut down its own workers’ unionization efforts, finally got to question Schultz during a Senate hearing Wednesday.

Schultz, currently the company’s chairman emeritus, is testifying before Sanders and the rest of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee during a hearing titled “No Company Is Above the Law: The Need to End Illegal Union Busting at Starbucks,” on Wednesday morning. Later, the committee will hear from a barista, a union organizer and worker who was let go, and others.

Sanders, who has accused Schultz of “illegal anti-union activities,” reiterated on Wednesday that “the fundamental issue we are confronting today is whether we have a system of justice that applies to all, or whether billionaires and large corporations can break the law with impunity.”

Sanders mentioned that Starbucks and the union have yet to sign a contract.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Since December 2021, nearly 300 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize and been certified by the National Labor Relations Board. It’s a relatively small number compared to the roughly 9,300 company-operated Starbucks stores in the United States. But union organizers are fighting an uphill battle against the company.

Judge orders Starbucks to reinstate workers fired for unionizing

NLRB administrative law judge Michael Rosas recently said that Starbucks had displayed “egregious and widespread misconduct” in its dealings with employees involved in efforts to unionize Buffalo, New York, stores, including the first location to unionize. Starbucks repeatedly sent high-level executives into Buffalo-area stores in a “relentless” effort, the judge wrote, which “likely left a lasting impact as to the importance of voting against representation.” As a result, the company must reinstate and make whole a number of workers who were let go from locations in or around Buffalo, Rosas said. The judge also said that Schultz, then interim CEO, and another company leader must read the notice to employees, or be present at a meeting where the rights are read.

When Sanders asked whether Schultz would read the notice, Schultz said no. “I am not, because Starbucks coffee company did not break the law,” he said.

Schultz said during his testimony Wednesday that “unequivocally,” Starbucks “has not broken the law.” He referred to Rosas’ findings as “allegations,” adding that “we’re confident that those allegations will be proven false.” Starbucks said in a statement at the time of Rosas’ order that it is “considering all options to obtain further legal review,” adding that “we believe the decision and the remedies ordered are inappropriate given the record in this matter.”

When Sanders asked Schultz to commit to exchanging proposals with the union within two weeks of the hearing, he declined to do so, saying instead that “we will continue to negotiate in good faith.” Starbucks argues that it is the union that has dragged its feet to the bargaining table.

Unionization movement at Starbucks is running out of steam

In prepared remarks available on a Starbucks’ websiteSchultz reiterated his position that while he recognizes that Starbucks workers have a right to decide whether to join a union, he doesn’t think they should.

“Starbucks respects the right of all partners to make their own decisions about union representation,” Schultz said.

Regional NLRB offices have issued dozens of complaints against the company, covering over 200 unfair labor charges.

In prepared remarks for the hearing, Schultz said, “Starbucks has complied with the National Labor Relations Act,” by recognizing unions after they are certified by the NLRB.

Schultz has served three stints as Starbucks’ chief executive, most recently as interim CEO from April 2022 until earlier this month, when he handed over to current CEO Laxman Narasimhan ahead of schedule.

In his prepared remarks, Schultz also spoke about the company’s history, and its character as he sees it.

“Starbucks follows its guiding principles, lives its mission and values, celebrates diversity and inclusion, and welcomes all on the belief that our differences make us better and stronger,” he said. “We are a different kind of public company that balances profitability with social conscience. Aspiring to achieve that vision has been my life’s work.”

Schultz praised the generous perks and benefits Starbucks offers. He acknowledged that when he returned last year it was because the company had “lost its way,” but said that it is now back on track.

That rosy image of the company, however, has been tainted by the high-profile efforts by Starbucks against the union, which unfolded under Schultz’s leadership in 2022 and into this year.

“In America, workers have the constitutional right to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining for higher wages and better working conditions,” Sanders, who chairs the HELP Senate Committee, said in a statement ahead of Wednesday’s hearing. “Unfortunately Starbucks, under Mr. Schultz’s leadership, has done everything possible to prevent that from happening.”

Earlier this month, when Schultz agreed to testify after previously declining, Starbucks Workers United said “we look forward to Howard Schultz testifying in front of the HELP Senate committee,” adding that “as the architect of Starbucks’ unprecedented anti-union campaign, it is high time for him to be held accountable for his actions.”

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