On Tuesday, Starbucks agreed to have and interim CEO Howard Schultz testify before a Senate committee chaired by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, ending a weekslong dispute between the left-wing politician and the Seattle-based global coffee giant.
Sanders chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP), and intends to hold hearings on large corporations who in Sanders’s telling routinely violate federal labor law by resisting employees’ efforts to unionize. Starbucks is one of several chains whose stores have been targeted by union campaigns in recent years as service workers demand higher pay and better working conditions. While many Starbucks locations have held successful union votes, including some in Seattle, the chain has been harshly criticized for retaliating against pro-union workers (or “partners,” to use the company’s internal lingo). Last week a federal judge ruled that Starbucks had violated labor law “hundreds of times” during a union drive at a Buffalo, New York store.
Sanders, who has accused Starbucks of “corporate greed,” has made getting Schultz in front of the committee (and its TV cameras) a priority since he took over the chairship of the HELP committee earlier this year. Starbucks has resisted the demand and instead offered to have different executives testify in Schultz’s stead, in particular chief public affairs officer AJ Jones II, who the company said was better suited to answer questions about labor practices at Starbucks. The company also maintains that since Schultz is transitioning out of his CEO role this month, it doesn’t make sense to have him testify.
But Sanders, perhaps seeking to get testimony from a more famous executive who would generate more headlines, insisted on Schultz and was prepared to hold a vote on Wednesday to subpoena him and force him to testify. On Tuesday, Starbucks announced that Schultz would testify before the committee after all. “We will endeavor to provide a deeper understanding of our culture and priorities, including our industry leading benefits offerings,” Starbucks general counsel Zabrina Jenkins wrote in a letter to Sanders.
The hearing, scheduled for March 29, will likely be combative. “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,” Sanders said in a statement.
Correction 3/20 9:23 a.m.: A previous version of this story inaccurately referred to Schultz as Starbucks’s founder.