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Senate panel to ask Starbucks' Howard Schultz how he handled moves to unionize

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Howard Schultz, who just stepped down as interim CEO of Starbucks, heads to Capitol Hill today.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and others are preparing tough questions for him over how he has handled his employees' push to unionize.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Andrea Hsu joins us now for a preview. Andrea, I take it today's hearing has nothing to do with Starbucks putting olive oil in their coffee - only in Seattle, though, but still a great idea. So what is this hearing about?

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Well, Schultz is going to be in the hot seat. He's appearing before the Senate committee that oversees labor and employment issues. And that committee is chaired by none other than Bernie Sanders, who, of course, is one of labor's biggest champions in Congress. And Sanders has been trying to get Schultz before the Senate for a long time. He wants to press him on what Sanders calls Starbucks' illegal union busting campaign. He says Schultz is the architect of that campaign. And as we've reported, nearly 300 Starbucks stores have actually unionized. But it continues to be a pretty big fight. Starbucks, you know, has fired workers who were organizing and closed some of the unionized stores. And as Sanders will point out, federal labor officials have found Starbucks violated labor law in a number of cases across the country. So we're expecting Sanders to ask, you know, why do you keep breaking the law?

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So then what might Howard Schultz say to respond?

HSU: Well, he's going to deny that Starbucks is doing anything unlawful. The company has always said that workers who were fired were fired for misconduct, not for organizing a union. And we can also expect Schultz to talk about how much Starbucks respects and values its workers. He's going to talk about the competitive wages and great benefits Starbucks offers even part-time workers. And what's kind of ironic is that this is the same message that Howard Schultz brought to Washington nearly three decades ago. He was on this White House panel on corporate responsibility in 1996. And here's how then-President Clinton introduced him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: Starbucks has been recognized for its rather extensive benefit program for the workforce, including the scope of its health care plan. So I'd like for Mr. Schultz to talk about that.

HOWARD SCHULTZ: Thank you very much, Mr. President.

HSU: So it's really interesting that Howard Schultz has gone from being Mr. Corporate Responsibility to union buster in chief, even though his playbook is largely the same.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, it shows how much times have changed, too. So is anything going to come out of this hearing?

HSU: Well, probably nothing too concrete. But what Sanders and Democrats have been wanting to do when it comes to unions is pass something called the PRO Act. It's a bill that would do a number of things. For one, it would introduce financial penalties for companies who illegally interfere with labor organizing. Right now, there aren't any penalties. And in fact, the AFL-CIO's president, Liz Shuler, recently pointed out, you get a bigger fine for violating fishing laws in many states than you do for busting unions. But, you know, of course, with Congress divided the way it is, the PRO Act has gone nowhere. So Sanders is doing what he can do, which is basically public shaming.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. But, you know, I keep hearing about union campaigns in places like Tesla, Apple Store. I mean, so aren't unions having a moment right now?

HSU: Well, yes and no. We have seen a surge in labor organizing. And Gallup found public approval of unions is at a 60-year high. But the share of workers in the U.S. who are members of unions is pretty small. It's actually the lowest on record. And researchers who study labor movements say we're unlikely to see the numbers budge much until there's some significant change to labor law that makes organizing less of an uphill climb.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Andrea Hsu, thanks a lot.

HSU: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
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