WEST HARTFORD - A Starbucks employee who helped unionize her former shop in Connecticut traveled to Washington on Wednesday to hear the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions question Howard Schultz, the former chief executive officer of coffee chain.
Jordie Adams, who now works at a non-unionized Starbucks in western Massachusetts, still sits on the Vernon store's bargaining committee - a group that has seen what she estimates as about seven minutes of negotiations with Starbucks since the store unionized last June.
Vernon was the second Connecticut Starbucks to unionize after the West Hartford Corbin's Corner location unionized earlier in the year. On April 11, a store in Branford will vote to decide if it will unionize. Nearly 300 of the coffee shops have unionized across the country.
Adams said she helped the Vernon store where she started working in 2016 to unionize for similar reasons as the West Hartford one did.
"It was a lot of the same thing that (West Hartford) experienced, with inconsistent hours and our pay not raising with the cost of inflation," Adams said. "Benefits are not raising at all. I've been with the company since 2016 and the benefits are pretty much the same as when I started. We were actually very inspired by Corbin's Corner. They filed for their election and it kind of jump-started ours."
The senate committee, chaired by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., questioned Schultz on Wednesday about the hundreds of violations levied by the National Labor Relations Board against the corporation, which is accused of unfairly terminating employees and closing stores, among other issues.
"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 in his opening remarks. "That campaign has been led by Howard Schultz, the multi-billionaire founder and director of Starbucks."
Schultz, who recently stepped down as chairman of Starbucks, repeatedly denied Sanders' claims of union-busting tactics.
In an exchange with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Schultz said Starbucks abides by the law.
"What do you mean when you say you abide by the law? When I do a search online to take a look at cases that have been brought against Starbucks for illegal firings … calling your practice egregious and widespread misconduct. You say you follow the law, but of course this committee sees repeated evidence of (National Labor Relations Board) orders forcing you to reverse actions that were on their face a violation of the law. When you say you don’t break the law, you abide by the law, you mean you disagree with all of these decisions. You think they got it wrong in all of those cases?"
Employees of the Corbin's Corner Starbucks store in West Hartford voted to unionize last June.Contributed photo / Corbin's Corner Starbucks
In response, Schultz called the National Labor Relations Board's complaints mere accusations the company plans to defend.
"I think what you’re talking about is allegations that we look forward to in the process to defend ourselves," Schultz said.
Murphy said Schultz's claim doesn't square with the "overwhelming" evidence presented by the National Labor Relations Board.
"It is akin to someone who has been ticketed for speeding 100 times, saying I’ve never violated the law, because every single time the cop got it wrong," Murphy said. "That would not be a believable contention if someone were to make that before the committee. 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 as your testimony is before this committee."
Schultz, who said Starbucks would follow a judge's order, maintained that the company hasn't broken the law.
"I believe the allegations will prove that Starbucks is correct," Schultz said.
Adams said she heard "a lot of deflection from Howard" in his testimony.
"He outright, when asked, that Starbucks has not broken the law to which there are 50 to 60 partners in the lobby, a dozen of who were wrongly terminated for their organizing efforts, were like what? Aren’t you under oath? How can you sit there and say that?" she said.
Travis Glenney-Tegtmeier, an organizer of the West Hartford shop, followed the hearing from home along with other union members who were keeping a close eye on things. He said the experience was "cathartic."
"It was cathartic to see some of the most powerful people in the country sort of taking a critical position of a guy who seems to have gotten away without a lot of critical attention for his entire professional career," said Glenney-Tegtmeier, who has worked at Starbucks for over 11 years. "They leveled critiques against him and Schultz was clearly not happy to be there and not comfortable with what was going on."
Adams was pleased, though, with the support Starbucks workers received at the hearing, a feeling she will bring back home as she continues to help with the Vernon Starbucks negotiations.
"I was really pleasantly surprised by the amount of support that showed up," Adams said. "That was incredible. I wasn’t expecting to see anybody but ourselves. I think we’re in it alone, but then with all this support, we’re very much the opposite of alone. I find myself just very happy to be part of the movement as a whole. I like to think that all the support we’ve seen and the turnout and the fact that Howard Schultz was called before the Senate, the fact that all of that is happening, I like to think that will give us a renewed vigor in the national movement."
Glenney-Tegtmeier agreed, saying past visits from both Murphy and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to their shop mean a lot to their movement.
"It brings the attention back in a positive way that is for sure going to help us out. It’s been a little slow going for quite awhile now. This will bring a little life back for sure," Glenney-Tegtmeier said. "I think everyone out there has their skepticism of politicians. It is quite gratifying for one of our own politicians to express some concern and come down to listen to us and go up there and attempt to make it right."