WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders and Howard Schultz are squared off Wednesday in a highly anticipated hearing about the company’s labor practices, which the former Starbucks CEO defended against criticism.
Schultz testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is chaired by Sanders, I-Vt., in a hearing unsubtly titled, “No Company is Above the Law: The Need to End Illegal Union Busting at Starbucks.”
It came after weeks of clashes between the Sanders-led panel and Starbucks, which unsuccessfully urged the panel to hear testimony from someone other than Schultz, who officially exited the company on March 20. Sanders refused and Schultz eventually agreed to testify under threat of subpoena.
“Strong unions are a vital part of rebuilding the declining middle class in this country,” Sanders said in his opening statement, adding that as union activity has risen, “corporations have engaged in an unprecedented level of illegal union busting activities” and blamed Starbucks. “Over the past 18 months, Starbucks has waged the most aggressive and illegal union-busting campaign in the modern history of our country.”
The hearing, which lasted more than three hours, featured a defense of Starbucks labor practices from Schultz, as well as testimony from Maggie Carter, a Starbucks barista in Knoxville, Tennesse, and Jaysin Saxton, whom the committee labeled a “fired Starbucks worker leader” of Augusta, Georgia, and other witnesses.
There were some tense exchanges between Sanders and Schultz over the course of the hearing. At one point, the former Starbucks CEO pushed back on Sanders repeatedly labeling him a billionaire, calling the moniker “unfair.”
“I grew up in federally subsidized housing … my parents never owned a home. I came from nothing. I thought my entire life was based on the achievement of the American dream,” he said. “Yes, I have billions of dollars. I earned it, no one gave it to me. And I’ve shared it constantly with the people of Starbucks.”
Schultz found a warmer reception from Republicans on the committee, with Ranking Member Bill Cassidy, R-La., saying that the hearing is “not a good faith effort to get the facts.”
“It’s a smear campaign against an individual and a company based upon allegations that everyone knows are still under litigation,” Cassidy said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. This is not a fair and impartial hearing.” He also criticized the National Labor Relations Board for putting “their thumb on the scale for unions.”
Schultz told the committee that Starbucks is “100% committed to fulfilling our obligations as an employer under the National Labor Relations Act and are committed to good faith negotiations on first contracts for each unionized store.”
“Every day, we wake up thinking about how we can put our people first position to win. We do everything we can to demonstrate the heart and the values of service,” he said.
In response to aggressive questioning from Sanders, Schultz repeatedly denied that Starbucks has violated the law and vowed to continue negotiating with union organizers in “good faith.”
Schultz also touted Starbucks’ wages and benefits, saying that while “unions have served an important role in American business for many years,” that has tended to be more prevalent with companies that mistreat workers.
“We do nothing that is nefarious,” he said. “And that’s why Starbucks doesn’t need a union.”
Sanders, a two-time Democratic presidential primary runner-up who has built a brand as a champion of labor unions, has taken a keen interest in Starbucks and Schultz.