CT Starbucks union advocates bring their fight to Washington, D.C.
As Jordie Adams and Salwa Mogaddedi listened to former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz testify before the U.S. Senate on Wednesday about the company’s labor practices, they recognized parallels to their own experience helping to organize a union at their store in Vernon.
Before the election to unionize last July in Connecticut, they said, management claimed workers who unionized would lose access to benefits and not be allowed to transfer to different Starbucks locations.
“We also experienced a lot of blatant lies coming from corporate through our management, telling people that they would lose that benefit, they wouldn’t be able to speak directly to management anymore, and also they wouldn’t be able to pick up hours at other stores or transfer if they were to move,” Adams said after the hearing.
Adams, 29, has worked at several Starbucks locations over the past seven years. She helped unionize the Vernon location last year but now works at a different Starbucks in western Massachusetts. Although she currently works full time in Massachusetts, she said she is not guaranteed 40 hours a week and has two other jobs.
“I can attest to [that] because I did it. Being in a union or non-union store does not affect your spot in the company, especially without having a ratified contract,” Adams said. “I’ve worked at Starbucks in three different states, and have enjoyed the freedom to transfer and continue to do the job that I enjoy.”
Adams and Mogaddedi were two of dozens of Starbucks employees and union organizers who attended the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s hearing on Wednesday. The company’s former CEO was questioned about alleged anti-union tactics since he returned to the helm last year.
Schultz previously served in the role twice before and came back last year after the retirement of Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson. Schultz was expected to remain as interim CEO until April 1 but left a few weeks early and is now succeeded by Laxman Narasimhan.
Since the wave of campaigns began in 2021, nearly 300 Starbucks locations have won union elections, though no store has ratified a contract.
Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., noted that the National Labor Relations Board has filed more than 80 complaints against Starbucks over violations of federal labor law, as well as 500 unfair labor practice charges levied against the company.
“Over the past 18 months, Starbucks has waged the most aggressive and illegal union-busting campaign in the modern history of our country,” Sanders said at the hearing. “The fundamental issue we’re 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.”
Schultz pushed back against questions and characterizations of his company from Sanders and Democratic senators. He said Starbucks has never broken the law.
“We want to treat everyone with respect and dignity,” Schultz said. “However, I have the right, and the company has the right, to have a preference. And our preference is to maintain the direct relationship we’ve had with our employees, who we call partners.”
In response to a question from Sanders, Schultz said he was not part of the decision to close Starbucks locations that unionized or where pro-union employees worked.
“My involvement and engagement in union activities, despite this event today, has been de minimis,” Schultz said. “I was not involved in any issue of closing stores.”
Mogaddedi, 28, was organizing her store in Vernon while battling Stage 4 cancer. She is in remission but was unable to go back to work as a barista because of a disability she developed. She left the company after almost seven years when her family and medical leave ended earlier this year, she said.
She called Schultz’s testimony a “photo-op” and said the claims of support by managers had faded after the store voted to unionize.
“He can show up and say that they’re a progressive company, but he can’t back that up,” Mogaddedi said. “We also had it where there was a show of support prior to our election. … But when the election happened and we won, we suddenly saw that managers that were coming to support the store were suddenly out of sight.
“We saw people were losing their hours in the midst of an organizing campaign, and after a won election, people feeling threatened like they can’t go to work,” she added.
Adams said that both of Connecticut’s U.S. senators — Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal — have visited unionized Starbucks stores in the state.
Murphy, who is a member of the committee, pressed Schultz on his claim that Starbucks has never violated the law and whether the NLRB got all of its decisions wrong regarding the company’s labor practices.
“It is akin to someone who has been ticketed for speeding 100 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 if someone was to make that before the committee,” Murphy said.
“I find it hard to believe your insistence that, notwithstanding this extraordinary set of decisions — reinstating workers, forcing stores to be reopened — that you are in fact consistently abiding by the law, as your testimony is before this committee,” he added.
Schultz cited an example from Memphis where pro-union employees reopened the store after closing hours “for activities that were not consistent with safety and procedures at Starbucks.” Workers were fired for letting in a TV crew, but Starbucks rehired them after a federal judge ruled that they must be reinstated.
“Safety is key at Starbucks, but we can’t be held accountable for things that we believe under the procedures of Starbucks that are based on safety for our people, that is a clear violation of our procedures,” Schultz said.
“I don’t believe Starbucks has broken the law,” he said in response to Murphy.
Mogaddedi took specific issue with Schultz’s statements about worker safety.
She pointed to the testimony of Maggie Carter, a Starbucks barista in Tennessee, who said at Wednesday’s hearing that workers were asked not to test for COVID-19 so that the store did not have to shut down over positive cases.
Mogaddedi said her coworkers at the Vernon store were showing up for work with COVID because they did not have sick time.
She also highlighted the disparity between operations at various Starbucks locations, particularly if that store supports unionization. She said the company will close down some stores with full staffing, while others were operating in a much more limited capacity. Her old Starbucks location handled in-person, drive-thru, mobile and delivery orders but, at times, would have only two people working.
“You can’t claim worker safety when you’re running stores with two people and then you want to claim that it’s safe, but then you want to shut down stores that are at full capacity,” Mogaddedi said. She added that some Starbucks are “weaponizing skeleton crews” as a way to stall union efforts.
This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.