Defending Starbucks, Schultz Spars With Party That Once Embraced Him

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, a former chief executive, said it was “somewhat rich that you’re being grilled by people who have never had the opportunity to create a single job.” He suggested that while a union might be necessary at companies “that are not good employers,” that was not the case at Starbucks.

Democrats’ response came at two levels of elevation. First, they said the company was excluding unionized stores from the benefits that Starbucks had introduced since the union campaign began, such as faster accrual of sick leave and a credit-card tipping option for customers, showing that its commitment to such benefits was tenuous.

The National Labor Relations Board has issued complaints calling the denial of benefits to union stores an attempt to discourage workers from organizing. Mr. Schultz said at the hearing that the company couldn’t offer the new benefits at union stores because the law said it must bargain over them first; legal experts have cast doubt on that interpretation.

More broadly, Democrats argued that unions acted as a corrective to a basic power imbalance between workers and management. A company might treat workers generously under one chief executive, then harshly under another. Only a union can ensure that the favorable treatment persists, said Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts.

Yet in illustrating how far the politics of labor have changed in Washington in recent decades, there was perhaps no better bellwether than Senator John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a former business owner and self-described “extreme moderate.”

Mr. Hickenlooper conducted himself more respectfully and deferentially than most of his Democratic colleagues, applauding Mr. Schultz for “creating one of the most successful brands in American history” and declaring that “you know more about economics than I will ever know.” But in his questioning he aligned himself squarely with his party, pointing out that the rise of inequality in recent decades had coincided with the weakening of unions.

“I certainly respect the desire to be directly connected with all your employees,” he told Mr. Schultz. “But in many ways that right to organize, and that opportunity for people to be part of a union, is a crucial building block for the middle class and, I think, gave this country stability.”

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