Caffeinated labor tactics

Bernie Sanders will finally get a chance to grill Starbucks’ Howard Schultz on union-busting

Schultz initially declined to appear before a Senate committee, until Sanders tried to subpoena him

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A pro-union rally in Buffalo, NY.
A pro-union rally in Buffalo, NY.
Image: LINDSAY DEDARIO (Reuters)

Interim Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz will testify at a Senate hearing on March 29 about the company’s apparent union-busting tactics after being threatened with a subpoenae by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

Schultz initially declined an invitation to appear in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on March 9, prompting Sanders to try to compel his attendance. Sanders, the chair of the committee, said Starbucks defied a number of other congressional oversight inquiries, including additional meetings and requested documents.


The committee’s Democrats had scheduled a March 8 vote on issuing a subpoena, but it was called off after Schultz agreed to appear before the committee later this month.

Is Schultz the “driving force of labor policy at Starbucks”?

Starbucks has been accused of violating federal labor law on a number of different fronts.


The general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has filed over 500 unfair labor practice charges against the company, according to a spokesperson for the board. And, just last week, a judge ruled that Starbucks violated federal labor laws in union negotiations with workers. Specifically, the rulings found that the company had engaged in “egregious and widespread misconduct” in its response to the labor campaign.

After Sanders first notified Starbucks of his intention to subpoena Schultz, Zabrina Jenkins, the company’s general counsel, said she was “shocked and deeply concerned” at the request, adding that Schultz had not been involved in labor negotiations and was due to step down in the coming months.

Sanders responded the same day: “Schultz is the founder of Starbucks, he is the CEO of Starbucks, he is the spokesperson for Starbucks, and he will continue to be on the board of directors at Starbucks well into the future… Mr. Schultz has made it clear that he is the driving force of labor policy at Starbucks.”

Schultz is set to resign from his position as CEO for the third time on April 1, with former Pepsi chief commercial officer Laxman Narasimhan due to succeed him.


Starbucks employees, by the numbers

$15: The starting wage floor for a Starbucks employee. According to the company, the average wage is $17.50.


81: The number of general complaints against Starbucks since employees at the company started the unionization process in 2021.

282: The number of successfully unionized Starbucks stores certified by the NLRB. The board also certified 56 elections in which employees voted against unionization.


504: The number of individual unfair labor practice charges the NLRB general counsel has filed against Starbucks.

235,000: The total number of Starbucks employees.

$3.8 billion: The net worth of Schultz.

$8.8 million: The signing bonus for Narasimhan in his contract to succeed Schultz.


$117.87 billion: The company’s current market capitalization.


“If [Starbucks workers] had faith in me and my motives, they wouldn’t need a union.” – A line from Howard Schultz’s 1997 memoir Pour Your Heart Into It.

Unionization at Starbucks, a timeline

August 23, 2021: Despite initial unionization efforts starting as early as 2019, the first official notice comes in the form of a tweet directed at former Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson declaring that labor was organizing at three stores in the Buffalo, N.Y., area.


November 6, 2021: Schultz pens an open letter to employees saying he is “saddened and concerned” to hear of union campaigns at Starbucks stores.

December 9, 2021: After a vote among employees, the Elwood Starbucks in Buffalo becomes the first location to officially form a union, winning 19 to 8.


January 31, 2022: Unionization spreads quickly across domestic Starbucks stores, with employees at 54 stores pursuing union elections just a month after the first election.

August 18, 2022: A Tennessee judge finds that Starbucks engaged in unlawful activities in labor negotiations and issues an injunction requiring the company to rehire seven workers who were unlawfully fired at a Memphis location.


February 8, 2023: Sanders invites Schultz to testify before congress about Starbucks’ attempts to prevent labor organizing.

February 14, 2023: Schultz declines the invitation, saying his impending exit from the company prevents him from speaking on the subject.


February 22, 2023: Schultz blames unionization efforts on adverse economic conditions for young people in a wide-ranging CNN interview.

March 8, 2023: Sanders calls off a vote to subpoena Schultz, after the executive agreed to appear at a March 29 hearing about efforts to prevent labor organizing at his stores.


March 23, 2023: Starbucks will hold its general annual meeting, where the New York City Comptroller and other investors urge shareholders to vote for an independent assessment of the company’s labor practices.

What does Sanders’ committee chairmanship mean for labor rights?

This aggressive inquiry is the latest move by Sanders, an avowed democratic socialist, to hold large corporations accountable. After 30 years in Congress, as well as two presidential bids, Sanders may have the most powerful position of his career as chairman of the senate labor committee, and he knows it.


Sanders has been aggressive right out of the gate, saying some corporations “should be nervous,” and vowing to take on pharmaceutical companies and the country’s “dysfunctional” healthcare system. While it is unclear how much actual legislation he will get passed with a Republican-led House, (or, for that matter, a Democratic-controlled Senate), Sanders understands his new position gives him a highly-visible role in Washington.

“I am chairman of the committee and I want to accomplish as much as I can,” Sanders said. “On the other hand, there are issues out there that I do not expect will be passed in this Congress, but are very important and they have to be talked about.”


For instance, last month Sanders hosted a press conference alongside railroad unions to demand a minimum of seven guaranteed paid sick days for rail workers. A week later he invited public school employees and representatives from teacher’s unions to the capitol for a town hall on teacher pay.

Fellow committee member Mitt Romney, a Republican senator from Utah, has criticized Sanders’ approach to the chairmanship, dismissing it as “a lot of storm and fury” while predicting that “very little [legislation] will reach the floor.”


Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested Schultz had been subpoenaed to go before the Senate committee. The scheduled vote over whether to subpoena him was called off after Schultz agreed to appear. It also contained out-of-date numbers. The average hourly wage for a Starbucks employee in 2023 is $17.50, not $17; the total number of employees is 235,000 not 245,000. The article has been corrected. 

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