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Five things to know about the Starbucks union-busting hearing

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz will testify Wednesday before a Senate panel chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is leading an investigation into the coffee chain’s labor law violations. 

Schultz is scheduled to testify Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. and you can watch it here via the committee livestream.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will question Schultz over allegations that Starbucks illegally intimidated, harassed and fired Starbucks workers who helped organize unionization efforts.

The hearing itself is titled No Company is Above the Law: The Need to End Illegal Union Busting at Starbucks. Schultz’s appearance comes after months of criticism from Sanders over Starbucks’ interactions with employees attempting to unionize, and a scathing ruling by the National Labor Relations Board in favor of organizers.

The history: Here’s why Bernie Sanders is going after Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz

Nearly 300 Starbucks stores have voted to form a union since December 2021, when a Buffalo location became the first to unionize. The movement has inspired workers at other companies to unionize for the first time, but it’s also prompted a sweeping crackdown on organizing from Starbucks. 

Sanders to grill Schultz over role in union-busting 

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a hearing on COVID vaccine pricing on March 22, 2023.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a hearing on COVID vaccine pricing on March 22, 2023.

Sanders has been pushing Schultz to testify for months and recently threatened to subpoena the longtime Starbucks executive. Sanders will use the opportunity to directly implicate Schultz in leading anti-union tactics that have been deemed illegal. 

Sanders’s committee staffers wrote in a Monday report that Starbucks “has become the most aggressive union-busting company in America” under Schultz, who returned to the company as interim CEO in March 2022 before abruptly resigning last week.

Since the first store unionized, the NLRB has levied more than 80 complaints against Starbucks — more than any other company — and more than 200 workers have been fired for taking part in organizing activities, according to Starbucks Workers United. 

According to complaints, Starbucks has responded to organizing efforts by reducing workers’ hours, firing union organizers, withholding benefits from stores that voted to unionize and even closing some of those locations. A former Starbucks manager in Buffalo testified in August that he was told to find reasons to punish pro-union workers.

“For far too long, Starbucks and its multi-billionaire owner have acted as though those laws do not apply to them,” Sanders’s committee staffers wrote in their report.

Courts have found labor violations

The National Labor Relations Board’s top prosecutor, Jennifer Abruzzo, poses for a portrait at National Labor Relations Board headquarters in Washington on Monday, June 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

Starbucks spokesperson Andrew Trull said that Schultz will “share his vision and belief for the company as its founder” and will be prepared to address Sanders’s questions, including those related to the company’s “continued compliance with U.S. labor law.”

Starbucks maintains that it has not fired or punished any employee for “supporting, organizing or otherwise engaging in lawful union activity.” But several judges have ruled otherwise. 

Judge says Starbucks committed ‘egregious and widespread’ labor violations fighting unions

An administrative law judge ruled earlier this month that Starbucks violated labor laws hundreds of times and demonstrated a “general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights.” 

The judge ordered Starbucks to rehire seven fired workers in Buffalo and provide back pay. The ruling states that Starbucks must post a notice in its stores promising not to surveil or threaten workers, and Schultz must read the message to the Buffalo workers himself. Starbucks is appealing the decision. 

Last September, Starbucks was forced to rehire seven fired baristas in Memphis after an appeals court ruled against the company. And a federal judge in Michigan ruled in February that Starbucks must rehire another fired union organizer. 

Fired Starbucks worker will testify Wednesday

Starbucks employees and supporters react as votes are read during a union-election watch party Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex, File)

Maggie Carter, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based Starbucks barista, and Jaysin Saxton, a former Augusta, Ga.-based Starbucks worker and union organizer who was fired in August for leading a walkout, will testify at the hearing.

The Starbucks workers will discuss the union-busting tactics they’ve experienced firsthand, according to a spokesperson for Starbucks Workers United. They’ll speak to lawmakers on a second panel directly after Schultz, who will testify before the committee alone. 

The NLRB filed a complaint in December alleging that Starbucks illegally fired Saxton and refused to negotiate in good faith with union representatives for the location, which unionized in April 2022. The board is asking a judge to order Starbucks to rehire Saxton and provide back pay. 

“Starbucks used a march on the boss as a reason to fire me, attempt to silence me, and to put fear into my coworkers,” Saxton said in a December statement

Schultz resigned early ahead of hearing

Howard Schultz
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaks at the Starbucks annual shareholders meeting in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Schultz announced on March 20 that he would resign effective immediately, ending his third stint as Starbucks CEO nearly two weeks earlier than anticipated. While Starbucks requested that another company executive testify instead, Sanders said that Schultz’s retirement didn’t change anything.  

Laxman Narasimhan, a former PepsiCo executive, is Starbucks’ newest CEO. Narasimhan hasn’t said how he’ll approach unionization, only stating that he’ll spend one day a month working as a barista.

Starbucks workers at 100 stores staged a nationwide walkout on Wednesday — the day of the company’s annual shareholder meeting and a bargaining session — as a message to Narasimhan. Investors were set to vote on whether Starbucks must undergo an independent investigation into the company’s commitment to the right to collectively bargain. 

“We are hopeful that Laxman Narasimhan will chart a new path with the union and work with us to make Starbucks the company we know it can be,” Starbucks worker and union organizer Michelle Eisen said in a statement last week. 

Top Republican to take aim at NLRB

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.)
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) leaves an all Senators briefing in the Capitol on Tuesday, February 14, 2023 to discuss the recent unidentified objects detected and shot down.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), the committee’s ranking member, will “make sure serious accusations are fully vetted and that no one is above the law,” according to spokesperson Ty Bofferding. 

However, Cassidy will also point out that many allegations levied against Starbucks are still being litigated and is expected to criticize the NLRB for increasingly siding with unions. 

Republicans and corporate lobbyists have bemoaned that the board is pushing for pro-labor policies under the leadership of Jennifer Abruzzo, a former union official. They’ve requested an investigation into allegations that NLRB officials coordinated with Starbucks Workers United organizers during union elections.

“Cassidy will also highlight the serious accusations of NLRB employees weaponizing the non-partial agency against American employers on behalf of labor unions,” Bofferding said.

Tags Bernie Sanders Hearing howard schultz Senate Starbucks Union Union busting

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