Unionized Starbucks Workers Roast Howard Schultz

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, under threat of subpoena, has finally appeared before the United States Senate to answer for the company’s union-busting practices.

Most unionized Starbucks workers had never, before Wednesday’s Senate hearing, heard Schultz try to defend how Starbucks has gone about relating to employees at the company’s near 300 unionized stores. And they didn’t like what they would hear.

The Schultz testimony, noted Gianna Reeve, a 22-year-old shift supervisor at a unionized Starbucks location in Buffalo, New York, gave Starbucks baristas “nothing new.” Buffalo saw the first successful Starbucks union vote in late 2021.

“His testimony and continued denial of Starbucks’ illegal activities is deplorable,” says Reeve. “It’s even more frustrating to hear Schultz feign unawareness about the labor law that deems those activities illegal.”

Throughout the Senate hearing, Schultz repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. The National Labor Relations Board — the independent federal agency that protects the right to organize — doesn’t share his perspective. The NLRB has found that the national coffee chain has violated federal labor law some 1,300 times under Schultz’s watch.

Those violations, the NLRB has held, include illegally monitoring and firing organizers, withholding benefits from unionized stores, and closing a store that attempted to organize.

“The Starbucks coffee company unequivocally — and let me set the tone for this very early on — has not broken the law,” Schultz at one point in the hearing insisted, a stance that brought immediate laughter from the gallery.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, reminded Schultz numerous times that workers have a constitutional right to organize. The decision on whether or not to form a union, the senator emphasized, belongs only to workers, not billionaire CEOs.

“Over the past 18 months Starbucks has waged the most aggressive and illegal union-busting campaign in the modern history of our country,” Sanders noted. “The fundamental issue we are facing today is whether we have a system of justice that applies to all — or whether billionaires and large corporations can break the law with impunity.”

Starbucks workers at the hearing found the spectacle of members of Congress grilling Schultz to be highly satisfying, especially since management and the union have spent only a few minutes together in the over 400 days since the first Starbucks store voted to unionize.

Gianna Reeve, the Buffalo Starbucks employee, noted she had once attempted to hold Schultz accountable by asking him to sign the Fair Election Principles, a set of standards assembled by Starbucks Workers United that expects management to commit itself to not retaliating against workers organizing to fight for a fair contract. Schultz’s response?

“He ran out of the room,” says Reeve.

“The work of baristas across the country brought us to this hearing moment,” she adds, “and it’s gratifying to witness.”

Following the hearing, Reeve once again attempted to confront Schultz and get him to sign the Fair Election Principles, a request he ignored as aides escorted him away.

Starbucks workers — the company calls them “partners” — shared with the Senate committee how far Starbucks management will often go to interfere in union organizing.

Maggie Smith, a single mom and Starbucks “partner” from Knoxville, Tennessee, testified that she felt motivated to form a union during the height of the Covid pandemic in the fall of 2021. The Knoxville store would soon afterwards become the first unionized Starbucks store in the South. But that victory didn’t come without a fight.

Employees at the Knoxville store found themselves threatened by their store manager and accused of being disloyal for wanting a union. The company even fired one six-year veteran of the company after she became actively involved in the union organizing. The NLRB has since found merit in the multiple unfair labor practice charges the union has filed and will pursue civil prosecutions. The agency is also seeking to reinstate, with back pay, the fired Knoxville “partner.”

Smith told the Senate panel she first realized how little real meaning the Starbucks “partner” label held when she saw first-hand how much the company opposed the “true partnership” with Starbucks that unionizing workers were trying to organize.

“You can’t be,” Smith explained, “pro-partner and anti-union.”

The Senate testimony from the Knoxville Starbucks workers offers just one example of how Starbucks is attempting to bust burgeoning union drives at Starbucks stores across the country. But Schultz throughout the hearing vehemently denied that Starbucks has broken any law.

“I take offense with you categorizing me or Starbucks as a union buster when that is not true,” Schultz told Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who had cited the huge sums of money Starbucks had spent retaining the services of the well-known Littler Mendelson anti-union law firm.

That Schultz response also drew laughter from union supporters in the crowd.

The Schultz era at Starbucks may now have ended, but the Starbucks worker fight for fair contracts remains far from over. The new Starbucks CEO, Laxman Narasimhan, has announced he plans to work a half-day shift once a month at a Starbucks outlet to stay close to customers and the store culture. He’s remained mum on his plans to negotiate with the union.

Starbucks workers have organized over 7,500 workers since December 2021, Buffalo’s Gina Reeve told the Senate panel. Those workers will be closely watching what course the new Starbucks CEO decides to take.

“The power dynamics of Starbucks need to be rebalanced,” she observed, “and I hope to see CEO Laxman Narasimhan take the opportunity to really make a ‘different kind of company.’”

Rebekah Entralgo is managing editor of Inequality.org. You can follow her on Twitter at @rebekahentralgo.