Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz faced a grilling by US Senators on Wednesday over allegations of worker mistreatment and illegal union-busting within the coffee giant. But it was Schultz’s personal fortune that drew the most ire, as Senators repeatedly referred to him as a billionaire.
“This moniker ‘billionaire,’ let’s get at that okay?” Schultz said during the hearing. “I grew up in federally subsidized housing, my parents never owned a home, I came from nothing. I thought my entire life was based on the achievement of the American dream. Yes I have billions of dollars, I earned it. No one gave it to me.”
Schultz, who served as Starbucks chairman and CEO for two terms, presided over the company’s 1992 public listing, which has since catapulted to a market capitalization of $118 billion. His net worth now stands at $3.7 billion, according to Forbes.
During the hearing, Democratic Senators Bernie Sanders and Tina Smith repeatedly laid into Schultz for his wealth, with Smith suggesting that Starbucks workers had the right to unionize because of the power imbalances between employees and the billionaire Schultz.
“You’re a billionaire, and they are your employees. The imbalance of power is extreme and that is why people want to come together to form a union,” Smith said.
Schultz expressed frustration at the characterization of him as a billionaire, adding that the same thing had been said “many times by the chairman” while pointing at Sanders. “It’s your moniker, constantly, and it’s unfair,” Schultz told Sanders during the hearing.
Schultz spent most of his childhood in federally subsidized housing in Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood. He has frequently referenced his rags-to-riches background, which some critics have described as misleading.
Schultz’s frustration with Sanders’ characterization of the wealthy was shared by some Republican lawmakers, most notably Oklahoma Sen. Markwayne Mullin, who defended Schultz during the hearing.
“I take offense to the chairman pointing out that all CEOs are corrupt because they’re millionaires,” Mullin said. “If you make a lot of money, you’re corrupt.”
He continued: “Yet, it’s bothering to me because, Mr. Chairman, you yourself have been very successful, rightfully so. Glad you have been. You’ve been in office for 28 years and you and your wife have [amassed] a wealth of over $8 million,” adding that Sanders’ wealth was boosted by a new book published last month. Sanders disputed Mullin’s claims, calling them a “lie.” He’s worth around $2 million stemming from real estate deals and investment funds, according to a 2019 Politico profile.
Sanders sought to get the hearing back on track to focus on union-busting accusations: “What this hearing is about is whether workers have the constitutional right to form a union,” he said. “The evidence is overwhelming, not from me, but from the National Labor Relations Board, is that time after time after time—despite what Mr. Schultz is saying—Starbucks has broken the law and has prevented workers from joining unions to collectively bargain for decent wages and benefits.”
The National Labor Relations Board has accused Starbucks of refusing to negotiate with newly organized unions, a violation of labor laws. Schultz has a long history of anti-union behavior, but pushed back Wednesday against the characterization of him as a union-buster, while also denying that Starbucks had violated any labor laws.