Longtime Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz will face sharp questioning Wednesday when he appears before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to defend the company's actions during an ongoing unionizing campaign.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent who has been a vocal supporter of Starbucks labor organizers, has been seeking Schultz's testimony for months. Schultz had tried to sidestep the hearing, suggesting that others in the company were more deeply involved in the union effort, which Starbucks opposes.
But Sanders had argued that Schultz — a longtime leader who stepped down as interim CEO last week but remains on the company's board — was instrumental in setting the company's policies. Under threat of a subpoena, Schultz agreed to testify.
"Let's be clear. In America, workers have the constitutional right to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining for higher wages and better working conditions," Sanders said in a statement. "Unfortunately Starbucks, under Mr. Schultz's leadership, has done everything possible to prevent that from happening."
At least 293 of Starbucks' 9,000 company-owned U.S. Starbucks stores have voted to unionize since late 2021, according to the National Labor Relations Board. Starbucks Workers United, the labor group organizing the stores, has yet to reach a contract agreement with Starbucks at any of those stores.
Workers say they're seeking higher pay, more consistent schedules and better benefits. But Starbucks argues that it already provides some of the best pay and benefits in the industry, and says its stores function better when it works directly with employees.
"We have been arranging more than 350 bargaining sessions involving more than 200 sets of negotiations — each relating to a single store — and Starbucks representatives have been physically present at more than 85 sets of negotiations," Schultz said in his prepared testimony ahead of the hearing. "However, union representatives have improperly demanded multi-store negotiations, delayed or refused to attend meetings, and insisted on unlawful preconditions such as 'virtual' bargaining and participation by outside observers, among other things."
The unionization effort has been contentious. Earlier this month, a federal labor judge found that the company violated labor laws "hundreds of times" during a unionization campaign in Buffalo, New York. The company is appealing. Federal judges have also forced Starbucks to reinstate labor organizers that it fired.
Schultz, who led Starbucks from 1987 to 2000 and from 2008 to 2017, returned as interim CEO last April. Starbucks' new CEO, Lazman Narasimhan, told The Associated Press that he also believes Starbucks functions better without unions.
"I continue to believe a direct relationship with our partners is the best way forward," Narasimhan said.