Bernie Sanders: The Need To End Illegal Union Busting At Starbucks – OpEd


Bernie Sanders’ opening remarks at the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee’s hearing titled, “No Company Is Above the Law: The Need to End Illegal Union Busting at Starbucks.” 

Let me get to the point of this hearing. Today in America, over 60% of our people are living paycheck to paycheck, and millions are working for starvation wages. Unbelievably, despite an explosion in technology and increases in worker productivity, the average worker is making over $50 a week less today than he or she made 50 years ago – after adjusting for inflation. Unless we change the nature of our economy, it is likely that the younger generation will have a lower standard of living than their parents.

What that means is that workers throughout our country are struggling to pay for housing, struggling to pay for healthcare and prescription drugs, struggling to put food on the table, struggling to pay off their student debt and deal with other basic necessities. And while that is the reality for the working class of our country, here is another reality. And that is that the people on top have never had it so good. Today in America, we have more income and wealth inequality than we’ve ever had with the top 1 percent owning more wealth than the bottom 90 percent, with CEOs now making 400 times more than their workers, and with 3 people on top now owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society. That’s the economic reality that exists today. The rich get much richer, working families struggle.

And, as a result of that reality, what we are now seeing is a major increase in trade union organizing. Throughout our country, in blue collar jobs and in white collar jobs, workers are standing up and fighting back and are forming unions in order to improve their wages, their benefits, their working conditions.

These workers know, as I do, that union workers earn nearly 20% more, on average, than non-union workers. These workers also know, as I do, that union workers have better health care benefits, better paid family and medical leave policies, are much more likely to have a pension and are less likely to be victims of health and safety violations compared to non-union workers.

At a time when 71% of the American people now approve of unions – the highest level since 1965 — there has been a major revitalization of the trade union movement in our country. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of union elections taking place in America has gone up by 53% and since 2020 workers have voted to form a union in over 70 percent of union elections.

That’s the good news for those of us who understand that strong unions are a vital part of rebuilding the declining middle class in this country.

The bad news is that in order to combat this increase in union organizing, corporations have engaged in an unprecedented level of illegal union busting activities.

Which takes us to the focus of today’s hearing.

Over the past 18 months, Starbucks has waged the most aggressive and illegal union busting campaign in the modern history of our country. That union busting campaign has been led by Howard Schultz, the multi-billionaire founder and director of Starbucks who is with us this morning only under the threat of subpoena.

Let’s be clear about the nature of Starbucks vicious anti-union efforts. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has filed over 80 complaints against Starbucks for violating federal labor law, there have been over 500 unfair labor practice charges lodged against this company and judges have found that Starbucks broke the law 130 times across six states since workers began organizing in the fall of 2021.

These violations include the illegal firing of more than a dozen Starbucks workers for “the crime” of exercising their right to form a union and to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Since the first Starbucks union was certified more than 450 days ago in Buffalo, workers at more than 360 stores across nearly 40 states have held union elections. 83 percent of these elections have resulted in a union victory and today nearly 300 Starbucks coffee shops employing more than 7,000 workers have a union – despite Starbucks aggressive anti-union campaign. But with nearly 300 shops voting to form a union, Starbucks has refused to sign a single first contract with the union. Not a single one. Think about it.

A multi-billion dollar company, with unlimited resources, with all kinds of lawyers, advisors, consultants, has not yet signed one contract with any of their nearly 300 unionized shops.

Just a few weeks ago, on March 1st, an Administrative Law Judge found Starbucks guilty of “egregious and widespread misconduct” which showed “a general disregard for the employees’ fundamental rights.”

In a 220-page ruling, this judge found that Starbucks illegally retaliated against employees for unionizing; promised improved pay and benefits if workers rejected the union; conducted illegal surveillance of pro-union workers; refused to hire prospective employees who supported the union; relocated union organizers to new stores and overstaffed stores ahead of union votes – all clear violations of federal labor law.

The judge also found that Starbucks “widespread coercive behavior over six months had permeated every store in the Buffalo market.”

The judge ordered Starbucks to reinstate seven workers who were wrongfully terminated, re-open a pro-union store in Buffalo that was illegally shut down, and pay “reasonable consequential damages” to more than two dozen workers whose rights were violated by Starbucks.

And let’s be clear. Starbucks egregious union busting campaign is not limited to Buffalo. It is happening all over America.

Federal courts in Tennessee and Michigan have issued emergency injunctions requiring Starbucks to reinstate workers who were illegally fired and to prohibit the coffee chain from firing workers for supporting unionization efforts in the future.

In Scottsdale and Phoenix, Arizona, the NLRB has charged Starbucks with committing eight violations of labor law when it disciplined, fired, and forced out workers because they cooperated with federal investigations.

On November 30th of last year, the NLRB found that Starbucks unlawfully refused to recognize and bargain with the union at its Reserve Roastery Store in Seattle.

NLRB judges have found that Starbucks illegally threatened to withhold benefits (including health insurance) from pro-union workers in Denver, Colorado; Overland Park, Kansas; Seattle, Washington; and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The pattern in all of these stores is clear: On the one hand, you have workers making $13, $14 or $15 an hour with minimal benefits, working 20, 30 or 40 hours a week depending on a totally unpredictable schedule dictated by their managers, trying to achieve dignity and justice on the job. On the other hand, we have a corporation worth $113 billion controlled by an individual worth nearly $4 billion who are using their unlimited resources to do everything possible, legal and illegal, to deny these workers their constitutional rights.

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. I have read Mr. Schultz’s comments to the media in which he expresses his strong anti-union views. As an American, Mr. Schultz is entitled to those views and any other views he holds. But even if he is a multi-billionaire and the leader of a large corporation he is not entitled to break the law.

So today, I will be asking Mr. Schultz whether he will do what an Administrative Law Judge has ordered him to do. And that is to record and distribute a 14-page notice which states that Starbucks has violated Federal labor law, to inform Starbucks employees about their rights under the National Labor Relations Act, how Starbucks has violated those rights, and to assure that Starbucks will not infringe upon those rights in the future.

In other words, I will be asking Mr. Schultz whether or not he intends to obey the law. Further, I will be asking Mr. Schultz another question. And that is whether or not he is prepared to promise this committee that within 14 days of this hearing, Starbucks will exchange proposals with the union, something it has refused to do for more than 450 days, so that meaningful progress can be made to bargain a first contract in good faith.

What is outrageous to me is not only Starbucks anti-union activities and their willingness to break the law, it is their calculated and intentional efforts to stall, stall and stall. They understand that the turnover rate at Starbucks is high. They understand that if workers do not see success in getting a contract and improved wages they may get discouraged. So what Starbucks is doing is not only trying to break unions, but even worse. They are trying to break the spirit of workers who are struggling to improve their lives. And that is unforgivable.

Bernie Sanders is a US Senator, and the ranking member of the Senate budget committee. He represents the state of Vermont, and is the longest-serving independent in the history of Congress.

Sen. Bernard Sanders

Sen. Bernard "Bernie" Sanders is an American politician serving as the senior United States senator from Vermont, a seat he has held since 2007.

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