WASHINGTON — Senator Bernie Sanders on Monday confirmed that his committee will hold a vote this week to open an investigation into federal labor law violations by major corporations and subpoena Howard Schultz, the billionaire chief executive of Starbucks, as the first witness.
Mr. Sanders, the Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, last week announced his intent to try to compel Mr. Schultz to appear on Capitol Hill, stating that Starbucks had declined an invitation in February for him to testify about his violation of federal labor law and defied congressional oversight inquiries, including by refusing requests for meetings and documents.
Mr. Schultz, the on-and-off chief executive of the coffee giant who briefly eyed a presidential bid as an independent in the 2020 election, and the company have faced increasing scrutiny amid continuing unionization efforts.
Last week, an administrative judge in New York ruled that the company had violated federal law dozens of times in responding with “egregious and widespread misconduct” to a union campaign that started in 2019. The National Labor Relations Board has filed 504 complaints against Starbucks for violating federal labor law, and 81 unfair labor practice charges have been lodged by the board’s general counsel against the company, according to an N.L.R.B. spokeswoman.
On Capitol Hill, the inquiry is the latest bid by Mr. Sanders, a two-time presidential candidate and self-described socialist, to use his power to demand accountability from big corporations and support workers when there is little chance of pushing any major legislation to do so through a divided Congress.
“At a time when unions are more popular than they have been in decades, we have got to make it easier for workers to exercise their constitutional right to form a union and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions,” Mr. Sanders said in a statement released on Monday.
After Mr. Sanders sent a letter informing the company of his intent to subpoena Mr. Schultz, Zabrina Jenkins, the acting executive vice president and general counsel of Starbucks, responded that the company was “shocked and deeply concerned” that Mr. Schultz was being asked to testify instead of an executive who has been involved in the company’s compliance with federal labor laws.
Ms. Jenkins also denied the allegation that the company has been unresponsive to the Senate’s inquiries, noting that a meeting took place last month between Mr. Sanders’s staff and one of the company’s executive vice presidents.
She added that Mr. Schultz would not be the right witness for the hearing because he joined the company after the unionizing efforts began and delegated oversight of it to other executives, and because he will no longer serve as interim chief executive after this month.
Mr. Sanders responded the same day, reiterating his request for Mr. Schultz — “not a subordinate” — to testify. He “is the founder of Starbucks,” Mr. Sanders said, “he is the C.E.O. of Starbucks, he is the spokesperson of Starbucks, and he will continue to be on the board of directors at Starbucks well into the future.”
Mr. Sanders added that “he is the man who engineered and continues to make labor decisions at Starbucks,” citing a meeting that was referred to in the court case last week in which Mr. Schultz met with Buffalo-area workers before the union elections in November 2021 and before he returned to the company as chief executive.
The Buffalo-area store became the first to unionize, and more than 275 have followed suit.
“Howard Schultz is the architect of Starbucks’s anti-union campaign and should be held accountable for his actions,” a spokesman for Starbucks Workers United, the worker-led union organizing committee, said in a statement. “We are ecstatic to see elected officials, like Senator Sanders, sticking up for workers’ rights and proving that even billionaires, like Howard Schultz, are not above the law.”
The group claims that the company has fired more than 200 workers because of their involvement in the campaign, an allegation that Starbucks has denied.
The vote to subpoena Mr. Schultz would need majority support of the committee, which includes 11 Democrats and 10 Republicans, making it likely to succeed.
“The time has come for multibillionaire leaders of extremely profitable corporations to understand that they are not above the law,” Mr. Sanders said in his statement. “When these billionaires and the enormously profitable corporations they run violate federal labor law, they must be held accountable.”