Bernie Sanders’s Interrogation of Howard Schultz Made Democrats Pick a Side

Bernie Sanders’s grilling of Starbucks’s union-busting billionaire Howard Schultz put a CEO in the hot seat on a national stage. It also forced Senate Democrats who might rather stay on the Democratic donor's good side to denounce his flagrantly illegal behavior.

Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) arrives to a hearing with former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 29, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

Yesterday morning, Sen. Bernie Sanders and his Democratic colleagues grilled Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks, and heard testimony from workers about the company’s extensive, illegal unionbusting. It was a glorious spectacle, displaying the power of working-class organizing with allies in elected office to push back against and divide the ruling class on a national stage.

Workers at Starbucks have been unionizing, voting yes to form unions at nearly three hundred stores and filing for elections at even more. Sanders, after two formidable presidential campaigns, is one of the most popular politicians in America and is still viewed nervously by the Washington establishment. With Sanders at the head of the hearing and Starbucks workers in the audience, Senate Democrats rightly treated Schultz, a longtime Democratic donor who ran for president in the 2020 primary, like the criminal that he is.

Sanders has been convening hearings about capitalist wrongdoing, presiding with his trademark vibe of focused and righteous exasperation, looking as pissed off as he’s given all of us permission to be. (His new book is titled It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.) Schultz at first refused to appear, but threatened with a subpoena, he had no choice. The main subject of the hearing was Starbucks’s extensive illegal efforts to prevent its employees from joining a union. Workers have filed more than two hundred unfair labor practices complaints against the company. Starbucks management has punished workers for union organizing, including by firing those workers and depriving them of benefits.

Schultz and the Republicans kept insisting these were just “allegations” and under “investigation.” Schultz repeatedly insisted that Starbucks “did not break the law.” These were lies.

National Labor Relations Board judges have in numerous cases found Starbucks guilty of violating workers’ right to organize and have even ordered the company to admit this to employees and reinstate fired workers. One administrative judge reprimanded the company for “egregious and widespread misconduct demonstrating a general disregard for the employees.”

Schultz’s denials of illegal union busting, Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, told the former CEO, were “akin to someone who has been ticketed for speeding a hundred times saying, ‘I’ve never violated the law, because every single time — every single time — the cop got it wrong.’ That would not be a believable contention.”

It was important that the excoriations of Starbucks came from Murphy and indeed, all the Democrats present, not only from Sanders. All Democrats present expressed support for the workers and harsh condemnation for Starbucks. None of them went easy on Schultz — not even Senator Patty Murray, who represents Washington State, where the company is headquartered and who has received campaign contributions from Schultz. She questioned Schultz about complaints from workers, saying that she was “troubled” and “disappointed” to hear about the company’s widespread union-busting efforts.

Schultz seemed personally offended that Democrats whose goodwill he thought he’d purchased were throwing him under the bus, especially Murray. He reminded Senator Murray, in a wounded tone, that they’d known each other for years and that she used to speak of Starbucks as a model company.

Republicans seemed amused to find themselves defending a known Democrat like Schultz but made clear that their commitment to capital and their class solidarity with bosses eclipsed any other values they might espouse. Mitt Romney joked about the oddity of finding himself, as a Republican and a Mormon who eschews coffee for religious reasons, on Schultz’s side, but quickly pivoted into a full-throated defense of the ownership class.

“It’s somewhat rich that you’re being grilled by people who have never had the opportunity to create a single job,” Romney said to Schultz. “And yet they believe that they know better how to do so.”

Like most anti-union ideologists, the Senate Republicans effused over the importance of supporting unions in other far-flung situations, unions in the past (back in the dark days when workers were exploited) or those supporting the Keystone Pipeline (of course), but repeatedly insisted that Starbucks didn’t need a union.

It was nearly impossible for Starbucks’s defenders to make the case that the company had followed the law and respected the workers’ rights, so they did their best to change the subject to the greatness of capitalism, the dangers of socialism, Sanders’s hypocrisy in denouncing the rich despite his success as a best-selling author, and of course, the abuse this country heaps upon the poor capitalist. Rand Paul opined:

Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark points out the ingratitude that man has for the entrepreneur, the creator. Thousands of years ago the first man discovered how to make fire — he was probably burnt at the stake he taught the others to light. . . . Many would argue we have too much food. It’s extraordinary how wealthy we are!

Sanders kept his cool. “This isn’t about my book, or Venezuela,” he deadpanned at one point.

We often hear laments about “partisan division” in this country, but too often, Republicans and Democrats are united in the fight that matters most: supporting capitalists against workers. Schultz’s bad day at the Capitol showed that worker power can change that, forcing parts of the governing class to turn against the bosses and make concessions to the workers. We’re seeing a similar dynamic in Albany, New York, this week, as legislators support some socialist and working-class demands, including protections for tenants, indexing the minimum wage to inflation, and taxing the rich.

Democrats gave Schultz, who remains on the board of Starbucks even though he recently retired from being CEO, an assignment: bargain in good faith and sign a first contract with at least one of the unionized stores within two weeks. It will doubtless take more organizing to resist Schultz’s backdoor efforts to wheedle the Senate Democrats back into the fold, but yesterday was a good start.