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A Combative Howard Schultz Faced Down Bernie Sanders in a Testy Hearing

He defended Starbucks against accusations that it cracked down illegally on unionized workers and isn’t bargaining in good faith

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Howard Schultz drinks from a Starbucks cup
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz at the Senate HELP Committee hearing
Harry Cheadle is the editor of Eater Seattle.

On Wednesday, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz faced down Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders at a sometimes combative congressional hearing. Schultz claimed that his company treats its workers very well, has not engaged in any illegal union-busting activity, and is bargaining with unionized stores in good faith.

All three claims are disputed not just by the octogenarian democratic socialist who chairs the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, but by many of Starbucks’s unionized employees as well as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Starbucks, once widely regarded as a relatively progressive multinational corporation that treated its workforce well by the standards of the service industry, is now seen by many (including Sanders) as a symbol of a corporate anti-union backlash. The hearing, which Schultz refused to attend until he was under threat of subpoena, was the company’s most public chance to refute those charges.

To date, nearly 300 of the mega-chain’s U.S. stores have voted to unionize, but no group of workers has been able to successfully work out a collective bargaining agreement with management. Starbucks Workers United, the union organizing in stores across the country, claims that management is using a series of stalling tactics to avoid coming to the table, such as refusing to bargain if any of the attendees are there via Zoom rather than in person. Last week the union held a protest outside of Starbucks’s SoDo headquarters to call attention to what it sees as unfair delays, and some NLRB officials have accused Starbucks of illegally dodging bargaining sessions.

At the hearing, Schultz reiterated the Starbucks management position, which is that it is the union’s demand for hybrid bargaining sessions that include Zoom attendees, among other “preconditions,” that have caused talks to languish. (Here again the NLRB has sided with the union, saying Starbucks is required to negotiate via Zoom.) “We believe face-to-face negotiations is the way to proceed, “ Schultz told Sanders. “There have been safety issues in which Starbucks managers have been outed on social media, there are privacy issues, we don’t want to do it on Zoom.”

He also told Sanders that he did not believe Starbucks had broken the law at any point, despite an NLRB administrative judge ruling earlier this month that the company engaged in “egregious and widespread misconduct” when stores in Buffalo, New York, were becoming the first in the country to unionize.

Schultz said that the company is appealing that decision, and it regards all accusations of union-busting as unproven allegations. The former CEO also said that he would not be present at a reading of a notice detailing Starbucks’s anti-union violations, as the judge ordered, because he did not believe Starbucks broke the law.

Democrats at the hearing were somewhat incredulous at Schultz’s claims. “It is akin to someone who has been ticketed for speeding 100 times saying, ‘I’ve never violated the law because every single time the cop got it wrong,’” Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy said at one point.

For their part, the Republican members of the HELP Committee bent over backwards to denounce the NLRB and praise Schultz, with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul beginning his remarks by quoting Ayn Rand and likening Starbucks’s discovery that people would pay for lattes to the discovery of fire. “Don’t deride one of the great American success stories,” Paul said.

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