Starbucks ex-CEO jostles with Bernie Sanders over anti-union push

The coffee chain has been accused of retaliating against workers involved in unionisation efforts.

The former CEO of the coffee chain Starbucks has testified before a United States Senate committee, responding to allegations the company had engaged in illegal retaliation against employees involved in unionisation efforts.

In a tense exchange, Howard Schultz faced accusations of “union busting” from progressive Senator Bernie Sanders, who spoke critically of the former leader’s time overseeing the coffee giant.

“The fundamental issue we are confronting 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,” said Sanders.

Starbucks, along with other major US brands like Amazon and Apple, has faced a wave of unionisation bids in recent years, as workers push for better wages and working conditions.

Schultz, who stepped down as Starbuck’s interim CEO earlier this month, acknowledged in Wednesday’s committee hearing that unionised locations had been excluded from a pay increase announced in May.

However, he said the company had done nothing illegal and dismissed charges to the contrary as “allegations”.

The testimony comes as the US experiences an uptick in support for labour activity. The polling company Gallup found that 71 percent of Americans approved of union organising in 2022, a high not seen since 1965.

In December 2021, coffee shops in Buffalo, New York, became the first Starbucks locations to successfully vote to unionise. Since then, about 300 locations have voted to follow suit.

But some employees have said they faced steep consequences for doing so. In August, a federal judge ruled that Starbucks must rehire seven pro-union workers who were fired in an apparent act of retaliation.

Testifying before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Wednesday, a disabled veteran and former Starbucks employee named Jaysin Saxton said he had been surveilled by managers and was fired for being “disruptive” after taking part in an unionisation effort.

“I did not receive any write-up or discipline,” said Saxton. “There was no investigation.”

On Wednesday, Starbucks shareholders voted in favour of conducting an independent assessment of the company’s labour practices, to decide whether they violated the “principles of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining”.

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