Howard Schultz Gets Roasted More than Starbucks Beans by SenatorsBreaking News
tags: unions, labor history, Bernie Sanders, Starbucks, Howard Schultz, service industry
Kim Kelly is an independent journalist, author, and organizer whose writing on labor, politics, class, and culture has appeared in Teen Vogue, Rolling Stone, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other publications. Her first book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor, is out now via One Signal/Simon & Schuster. She is currently working on her second book.
For those who care about workers’ rights and corporate misdeeds, the must-watch streaming event of 2023 had nothing to do with sports, or music, or even television—it was the March 29 grilling of Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, who was called to testify in front of the the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee by committee chair Senator Bernie Sanders.
Once known primarily for his role as the architect of a Seattle-based coffee empire (and more recently, as a failed almost-presidential candidate and a potential Labor Secretary in a hypothetical Hillary Clinton administration), Schultz has spent the past two years morphing into one of labor’s most visible corporate boogeyman. Though Schultz recently stepped down as Starbucks CEO (for the second time), he has continued to be vocal about his opposition to the worker-led organizing wave that had led 289 Starbucks stores, and counting, to unionize. And that opposition has translated into company policy: As of March 27, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has filed 83 complaints against Starbucks for violating federal labor law, and docketed 513 unfair labor practices against the company.
The coffee baron did not appear willingly. In February, he declined Sanders’ initial invitation to appear before the committee, and instead tried to send a substitute, former Capitol Hill staffer A.J. Jones II, and offered to send in two additional executives along with him. Sanders was unimpressed, and threatened to slap Schultz with a subpoena.
“The Senate HELP Committee invited Howard Schultz to testify, not a subordinate, because he is the man who engineered and continues to make labor decisions at Starbucks,” Sanders responded in a letter to Starbucks’ counsel. “At some point in the future, we may well want to hear from other executives as to how Starbucks intends to abide by the law and allow workers to form unions. But right now, the immediate issue is to hear from Mr. Schultz.”
Schultz caved, and arrived at the “No Company Is Above the Law: The Need to End Illegal Union Busting at Starbucks” hearing to defend his conduct and his business practices before Congress and a packed room full of pro-union Starbucks workers and other onlookers. The hearing also included rousing testimony from Maggie Carter, a Starbucks barista in Knoxville, Tennessee; and Jaysin Saxton, a disabled U.S. Coast Guard veteran and fired Starbucks worker leader from Augusta, Georgia; as well as from labor law expert Sharon Block and other witnesses. Sanders led the questioning, and was unequivocal in his disgust for the coffee CEO’s behavior. “Over the past 18 months, Starbucks has waged the most aggressive and illegal union-busting campaign in the modern history of our country,” he said in his opening statement.
“The Starbucks company did not break the law,” Schultz responded, contrary to the NLRB’s rulings, which are publicly accessible and have been widely reported upon. Schultz instead characterized the NLRB judge’s rulings as mere “allegations,” and noted his intention to legally challenge the remedies ordered. At various points, he was visibly frustrated, angry, and emotional at being confronted with the ugly truth of his own actions.
In one of the hearing’s more absurdist moments, Schultz—who is currently worth $3.7 billion—took issue with Sanders’ characterization as a “billionaire,” saying that it was “unfair” to depict his financial status accurately. “Yes, I have billions of dollars,” he admitted. “I earned it!” This statement was greeted by audible laughter from the workers in the audience.
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