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Schultz Says Starbucks Has Never Broken Labor Laws Despite Dozens of Violations

At one point in the ex-CEO’s Senate testimony, Bernie Sanders reminded Schultz that it is illegal to lie under oath.

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 29, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Ex-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz testified during a much-anticipated hearing led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) on Wednesday, parroting what appeared to be blatant lies about the company’s fierce anti-union campaign and hundreds of labor law violations over the past year and a half.

For the roughly two hours that Schultz was in the hot seat before Sander’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, he stubbornly defended several points about the company’s handling of its workers and their union campaign: First, that Starbucks offers a comprehensive benefits package to employees. (Workers have said that their lack of benefits leaves them struggling to survive.) And second, that the company has been relatively friendly to the union. (The company has repeatedly tampered with union elections and refused to bargain with unionized stores.)

Third, and perhaps most egregiously, the three-time CEO insisted that the company has never once broken labor laws during its anti-union campaign — a claim that all evidence indicates is an unabashed lie.

On the last point, Schultz declared his stance early on. Directly after Sanders delivered his opening statement, the senator fired off a series of questions on the company’s anti-union campaign, which he labeled the “the most aggressive and illegal union-busting campaign in the modern history of our country.”

“Are you aware that [National Labor Relations Board] judges have ruled that Starbucks violated federal labor law over 100 times during the past 18 months, far more than any other corporation in America?” he asked.

“Sir, Starbucks Coffee Company, unequivocally — let me set the tone for this very early on — has not broken the law,” Schultz said, in an assertion he would echo numerous times throughout the hearing.

But Starbucks has broken the law repeatedly, according to the union, labor board officials, several NLRB administrative law judges who decide and settle unfair labor practice charges, and two federal judges thus far. Some of these decisions are pending appeal by Starbucks. Meanwhile, as of this week, there are over 70 cases before NLRB judges still waiting to be heard, according to the labor board. By Starbucks Workers United’s count, the labor board has found over 1,400 violations from the company thus far.

These decisions are far from trivial. Most recently, an NLRB judge found that the company had violated federal labor laws hundreds of times just in Buffalo, where the union movement began, implementing a “reign of coercion” that resulted in “egregious and widespread misconduct” against workers, the judge wrote.

During the hearing, Schultz dismissed this decision as “allegations,” prompting Sanders to remind him that it is illegal to lie while testifying under oath. “Mr. Schultz, before answering the following questions, let me remind you that federal law, 18 U.S. Code Section 1001, prohibits knowingly and willfully making any fraudulent statement,” he said.

“I understand that,” Schultz responded, before claiming that he has never been involved in a decision to fire any of the hundreds of pro-union workers that have been terminated by the company.

Labor advocates immediately disputed Schultz’s claim that Starbucks’s legal record is clean. Starbucks Workers United noted on Twitter that the statement elicited laughter from the many Starbucks workers who attended the hearing, and several workers and organizers said that his testimony was full of lies or mistruths. One Democratic senator said that Schultz saying that Starbucks had never broken the law was akin to someone with 100 speeding tickets saying they had never violated traffic laws.

“That would not be a believable contention,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (Connecticut). “So I find it hard to believe your insistence that, not withstanding this extraordinary set of decisions — reinstating workers, forcing stores to be reopened — that you are, in fact, consistently abiding by the law.”

Perhaps anticipating that the ex-CEO would insist that Starbucks has never broken the law, Democrats on the HELP Committee released a report on Monday debunking “myths” perpetuated by the company. In the 13-page document with dozens of citations, the lawmakers laid out a litany of actions from the company debunking its claims.

“MYTH: Starbucks has not been found in violation of any law because they have not exhausted all of their appeals in federal courts, up to and including the Supreme Court,” the report reads. “FACT: This is a deliberate attempt by Starbucks to delay a first contract for union workers.”

Later in the hearing, Schultz accused Starbucks workers and the union of lying about their experiences with the company. For instance, Schultz bristled after Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) said that her Starbucks worker constituents have raised issues with the company denying benefits to unionized workers, as the NLRB has determined the company has illegally done.

“I do take offense, I have to admit because it’s quite personal, when you bring up things that you heard that are not true,” Schultz responded. “We have never, ever taken any benefit away, and we never would, of anyone who was interested in joining a union. We simply have said that, under the law, our understanding is that we did not have the right to provide incremental benefits during the bargaining process.” (This argument, which is favored by anti-union lawyers, has been debunked by labor experts and officials.)

Schultz also appeared indignant when Sanders brought up the fact that the NLRB has accused Schultz of personally breaking labor laws when he reportedly told a pro-union worker in a meeting last year, “If you hate Starbucks so much, why don’t you work somewhere else?”

“I’ve read in the press that quote, and that’s not exactly what I said,” Schultz said.

He later attempted to clarify: “In a meeting in Long Beach, a Starbucks partner was trying to interrupt the meeting and start talking about the union…. I just turned to her, and I said, ‘if you don’t like the company, if you hate the company, you could work somewhere else,’” he said. “I didn’t know I was being filmed. I just simply said, ‘if you hate the company, you can go work somewhere else.’”

Toward the end of his testimony, Schultz seemed to take issue even with the company’s own written policies. When Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico) raised the company’s policy that part-time workers must work roughly 20 hours a week to be eligible for certain benefits, as part of a larger concern about Starbucks cutting hours, Schultz said, “I’m not sure that’s correct, sir. I’d have to get back to you, I’m not sure that’s correct.”

“I don’t want to ask one of your lawyers,” Luján responded. “I believe that to be true. I see a lot of head nodding from employees behind you.” From then until the end of Schultz’s time before the committee, the ex-CEO denied that workers’ hours have been cut across the board — though the union found last year that workers were reporting cuts and the NLRB has reinforced some of those findings.

Shortly after Luján’s questioning, Schultz’s time in the spotlight was over. Several Starbucks workers were set up to testify, and the corporate representatives Starbucks brought to the hearing stood up and left.

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