GEOFF BENNETT: Good evening, and welcome to the "NewsHour."
The former head of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, went head to head with Democrats on Capitol Hill today in a tense hearing over efforts to unionize at the company he founded.
AMNA NAWAZ: Schultz's opposition to unions has long been public.
But some lawmakers and labor leaders allege that Schultz has made union-busting moves that are illegal.
Schultz denied it forcefully.
As congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins reports, the hearing was a key moment in the battle over recent efforts to unionize.
LISA DESJARDINS: In one of the Senate's largest committee rooms, packed with intensity... HOWARD SCHULTZ, Former CEO, Starbucks: Starbucks Coffee Company did not break the law.
LISA DESJARDINS: ... a confrontation over business, workers and American values, as former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz faced a top critic, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): 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.
LISA DESJARDINS: The former CEO fought back, insisting his company is the worker-empowering place it claims to be, touting Starbucks' average wage per hour.
HOWARD SCHULTZ: Today, baristas in our stores, earned on average $17.50, with benefits and other income included, such as 100 percent paid college tuition, the first of its kind in American business.
LISA DESJARDINS: But thousands of workers are demanding more.
Nearly 300 locations have voted to unionize since 2021.
That is about 3 percent of the chain's U.S. stores.
But, so far, they are yet to sign a single contract.
SEN. EDWARD MARKEY (D-MA): You are out of touch.
Union-busting is disgusting.
LISA DESJARDINS: The National Labor Relations Board has accused the company of hundreds of labor law violations, denying raises and other benefits from pro-union workers.
In a Buffalo, New York, case earlier this month, an administrative judge found Starbucks had used - - quote -- "egregious and widespread misconduct" in an effort involving 20 stores.
But Schultz insisted the company has never broken the law.
HOWARD SCHULTZ: We're innocent because we have done everything that we possibly can to respect the right under the law of our partners' ability to join a union.
LISA DESJARDINS: At least one other former employee testified otherwise.
JAYSIN SAXTON, Fired Starbucks Worker: In July, I led a two-day unfair labor practice strike and delivered our demands.
A month later, I was fired for supposedly being disruptive.
I did not receive any writeup or discipline, and there was no investigation.
LISA DESJARDINS: The hearing was, in part, rapid-fire grilling, led by Sanders.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Were you ever informed of or involved in a decision to discipline a worker in any way who was part of a union-organizing drive?
HOWARD SCHULTZ: I was not.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Have you ever threatened, coerced, or intimidated a worker for supporting a union?
HOWARD SCHULTZ: I have had conversations that could have been interpreted in a different way than I intended.
LISA DESJARDINS: But it was also a higher debate over who decides what is best for companies and workers.
HOWARD SCHULTZ: Our preference is to maintain the direct relationship we have had with our employees that we call partners.
SEN. TAMMY BALDWIN (D-WI): You employ over 235,000 people in -- over 3,000 in my state of Wisconsin, alone.
You can't possibly have a direct relationship with all of them.
LISA DESJARDINS: It is a high-stakes and closely watched clash, as efforts to unionize have taken shape at other companies, including Apple and Amazon.
Some Republicans challenged unions in general, including former businessmen and Utah Senator Mitt Romney.
SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): Profit incentive and greed has been there from the beginning of humankind but, there's also a union greed.
LISA DESJARDINS: Others tried to turn the table on committee Chair Sanders.
SEN. MARKWAYNE MULLIN (R-OK): You have been in office for 28 years, and you and your wife has immersed (sic) a wealth of over $8 million.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: If I am worth $8 million, that is good news to me.
(LAUGHTER) SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I'm not aware of it.
That is a lie.
LISA DESJARDINS: Schultz, whose net worth is estimated at over $3 billion by Forbes, responded to criticism of being out of touch.
HOWARD SCHULTZ: This moniker of billionaire, let's get at that, OK.
I grew up in federally subsidized housing.
Let me finish.
I grew up in federally subsidized housing.
My parents never owned a home.
I came from nothing.
LISA DESJARDINS: But the question is where Schultz and Starbucks go now, as unions and some in Congress keep up a loud push.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.