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Starbucks CEO won’t deny that conversations with pro-union staff could be seen as threatening

Coffee chain founder is hounded over dozens of allegations of illegal union busting activity

John Bowden
Washington DC
Wednesday 29 March 2023 16:28 BST
Former Starbucks CEO invokes Holocaust before pivotal union vote

The CEO of Starbucks clearly came to Capitol Hill on Wednesday prepared for a fight with Senator Bernie Sanders over the issue of his company’s alleged union-busting, but still squirmed when confronted on the issue of whether he had threatened or coerced his own workers.

Howard Schultz, the outgoing interim CEO who returned to the company he founded last year, battled Mr Sanders over allegations that Starbucks had forced store staff to attend captive audience meetings and taken punitive action against stores and individual employees who decided to support the chain’s budgeoning unionisation drive.

But he was clearly not comfortable when asked directly by Mr Sanders, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, whether his own conversations with his workers could be seen as manipulative or threatening.

“Mr Schultz, have you ever threatened coerced, or intimidated a worker for supporting a union?” asked the senator.

The outgoing CEO could not directly deny this.

“I’ve had conversations that could have been interpreted in a different way than I intended,” Mr Schultz admitted. “That’s up to the person who received the information that I spoke to them about.”

It was a moment that opened up a combative hearing, with Democrats taking turns questioning the company’s CEO over individual allegations of anti-union activity while Republicans, meanwhile, took turns praising Mr Schultz’s business acumen and, in the case of Sen Markwayne Mullin, personally attacking Mr Sanders over his political views and personal wealth.

Mr Schultz’s company is facing a barrage of allegations of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) violations, most of which are at various stages of being litigated or appealed. In February, an NLRB judge ruled that the company had illegally threatened workers.

The company remains adamant that it has not broken the law even as it faces comparatively higher numbers of NLRB allegations in the last two years over other corporations.

Some pro-union Starbucks workers were on Capitol Hill for the hearing on Wednesday and could be heard audibly groaning and chuckling in reaction to some points of Mr Schultz’s testimony.

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