Howard Schultz, the now-former Starbucks CEO, testified in Congress about how the specialty coffee company treats workers who are trying to form a union.
The coffee chains’ workers have been calling for management to bargain with its union reps at Starbucks Workers United (SWU) ever since the first Starbucks location was unionized in Buffalo, NY in 2021.
SWU now represents workers in 295 Starbucks stores across 37 states, yet management has still not settled on a bargaining agreement.
Shultz had stepped down as Starbucks CEO on March 20, 2023––two weeks earlier than planned. But he had been warned that he might face a subpoena to get him to testify before the senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee about his coffee chain’s treatment of union organizing efforts. He had been asked to sit before the committee by HELP’s chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), who professed his concern about Shultz’ strong anti-union stance at a time when the coffee chain is seeing rapid union organizing among its workers.
In a written statement before Schultz came to testify, Sanders had pointed out in a committee report that “At Schultz’s direction, Starbucks has fought the attempts of workers every step of the way, resorting to delay tactics and significant escalation in union busting, including unlawfully firing employees, having the police called in response to a peaceful and lawful congregation of workers who were attempting to present their request for union recognition, and illegally shutting down unionized stores.
“Workers in America have the constitutional right to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining to improve their wages and benefits. For far too long, Starbucks and its multi-billionaire owner have acted as though those laws do not apply to them.”
When Schultz sat down for the senate committee hearing on March 29, Sen. Sanders accused him of trying to break the union and of trying to break the spirit of unionized workers:
“Do you understand that in America workers have a fundamental right to join a union and collectively bargain to improve wages, benefits and working conditions? Do you understand that?” Sanders asked.
“I understand and we respect the right of every partner who wears a green apron,” Schultz responded, “whether they choose to join the union or not.”
“Are you aware that NLRB judges have ruled that Starbucks violated federal labor law over 100 times during the past 18 months, far more than any other corporation in America?”
“Sir,” Schultz replied, “Starbucks Coffee company unequivocally––let me set the tone for this very early on––has not broken the law.”
Sanders then asked, “Are you aware that on March 1st, 2023, an administrative law judge found Starbucks guilty of ‘egregious and widespread misconduct,’ widespread coercive behavior. And showed ‘a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights’ in a union organizing campaign that started in Buffalo, NY in 2021. Are you aware of that?”
“I’m aware that those are allegations and Congress has created a process that we are following and we’re confident that those allegations will be proven false.”
“Mr. Schultz, before answering the following … questions, let me remind you that federal law at 18 U.S. Code Section 1001 prohibits knowingly and willfully making any fraudulent statement.”
“I understand that,” Schultz stated.
Sen. Sanders then went on to ask Schultz if he had ever taken part in attempts to threaten, coerce, discipline, intimidate, or fire workers who have tried to join a Starbucks union. Schultz assured that, while some people may have interpreted some of his actions as being so, he has never done that. “I’ve had conversations that could have been interpreted in a different way than I intended. That’s up to the person who received the information that I spoke to them about,” he said.
Ultimately, when Sanders asked Schultz point blank if the company could “make a promise to this committee that you will exchange proposals with the union so that we can begin to make meaningful progress?”
Schultz would only state that “On a single store basis, we will continue to negotiate in good faith. That’s what we’ll do.”
Starbucks workers and union representatives were also in attendance and gave testimonies at the hearing.
Starbucks corporate has accused the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) of colluding with SWU to promote union membership. While the NLRB has accused Starbucks of carrying out an anti-union campaign that has included employee surveillance and firings.
The same day Schultz testified in the senate, some 52% of Starbucks shareholders approved a proposal to have an outside organization conduct a third-party audit of its labor practices and investigate allegations of any anti-union tactics. A coalition of shareholders, including the New York City Retirement Systems (NYCERS) and other pension fund clients, pushed to ensure that Starbucks make a “commitment to workers’ rights, including freedom of association and collective bargaining.”
Also, on the day of Schultz’s senate testimony, two Starbucks workers were fired in Buffalo, NY. Two days later, a Starbucks shift supervisor in Buffalo who had become a prominent union organizer was also fired from her job.
“At Starbucks, it’s time for a change,” Portland, Oregon Starbucks worker Alicia Flores said in an April 3 SWU press statement. “Partners are demanding a voice on the job to improve conditions. Investors are demanding scrutiny of the company’s labor practices. Senators are calling for an end to rampant union-busting. That’s why across the country, we’re calling on the Starbucks board members who lead the direction of this company to turn the page on the union-busting tactics of Howard Schultz, respect partners’ voice through their union and negotiate contracts across the country.”