WASHINGTON – As Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders settles into his new role as chairman of the Senate committee that oversees health and labor issues, he says some corporations “should be nervous.” And the longtime liberal crusader’s first target is Howard Schultz, the interim CEO of Starbucks who has aggressively fought his workers’ efforts to unionize.
Sanders and the 10 other Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee sent a letter to Schultz on Tuesday demanding he testify at a March 9 hearing on his company’s compliance with federal labor laws. If Schultz ignores or refuses the request, Sanders said, he’s willing to use the committee’s subpoena power to force him to appear.
“This is corporate greed,” said Sanders, 81, who has run for president twice and spent a political lifetime fighting corporations and monied interests over policies that he said hurt the working class. “Workers have a constitutional right to organize. And even if you are a large, multinational corporation owned by a billionaire you don’t have the right to violate the law. And we intend to be asking Mr. Schultz some very hard questions.”
Starbucks spokesman Andrew Trull said the company is reviewing the letter and “we will continue our ongoing dialogue with key stakeholders, including the chairman's office to offer clarifying information in reference to these issues.” He did not say whether Schultz will appear.
Sanders’ demand for testimony from Schultz is an opening act in his new role as chairman of the HELP panel, which has expansive jurisdiction over issues that have been central to his more than four decades in public service. And thanks to Democrats adding a seat to their majority in last year's election, Sanders can fully exercise the oversight powers of the gavel and potentially issue subpoenas without Republican support.
Sanders said he’s not done challenging individual corporations, mentioning Amazon as another company he believes has acted illegally against unions. And “if you are a multinational pharmaceutical company that’s been ripping off the American people and charging us outrageously high prices, you should be nervous, because I’m going to hold you accountable,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday. “I’m going to do something about it.”
It's unclear how much he can accomplish in a divided Congress. While the committee will serve as a bully pulpit for the Senate’s most famous progressive, passing significant legislation through the Senate — not to mention the Republican-led House – will be a heavy-to-impossible lift over the next two years. And finding areas of consensus will be a new test for the cantankerous far-left senator as he is watched uneasily by the industries he regulates and members of his own committee from both parties.
Sanders said he has “two roles”— one as chairman, with a more realistic focus on results, and another promoting his signature issues like “Medicare for All,” tuition-free college and paid child care, among others. He said he plans to take his “show on the road,” doing a series of town halls, roundtables and field hearings around the country. Next week, he’ll hold a town hall inside the Capitol, bringing teachers unions together to discuss teacher pay.
“I am chairman of the committee and I want to accomplish as much as I can … that’s what I’m paid to do and I intend to do it,” he said. “On the other hand, there are issues out there that I do not expect will be passed in this Congress, but are very important and they have to be talked about.”
Republicans are skeptical Sanders can make the kinds of deals necessary to push significant legislation through the committee.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican on the panel, said Sanders’ style is “a lot of storm and fury” and light on real accomplishments, meaning “little will be done to get through the committee, and very little will reach the floor.”
Sanders and his Democratic allies point to bipartisan deals he has made in the past, along with some of his unexpected relationships he's made with Republicans who share slices of his interests. While he spends most of his time talking about his progressive goals, they said, he is also an 16-year veteran of the Senate with an ability to compromise.
For his part, Sanders noted his deal with the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to improve veterans’ benefits almost 10 years ago and his work with former rival President Joe Biden, who beat him in the 2020 Democratic primary, to pass COVID relief policy in 2021 and negotiate a massive package of social spending programs that next year. That legislation ultimately stalled.
On the bipartisan veterans’ legislation, which aimed to improve access to health care after a series of controversies, “he put his heart and soul in it,” said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the previous chairwoman of the HELP committee and a member of the Veterans panel while Sanders and McCain were negotiating. “He learned, he listened, he compromised.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said Sanders often has a differing view than those in the caucus, “but he usually ends up where the team is.”
Sanders ticked off Republicans he has worked with — moderate Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, for example, both of whom sit on the committee and have deep interest in rural health issues. He said he’s holding regular meetings with Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, the top Republican on the panel who is known for compromise.
And this week, Sanders is holding a news conference with Sen. Mike Braun, an Indiana Republican who is on the panel, to demand that railroads provide workers with more sick days.
Braun said he's met with Sanders to discuss health care, and while they come at it from opposite angles — Sanders wants it to be government-run, Braun wants to reform the industry to lower costs — they fundamentally agree that there are problems. “When you take everything else away, people are still worried about the high cost of health care,” Braun said.
Outside of the Capitol, health insurance industry experts are watching what moves Sanders might make around Medicare Advantage, an increasingly popular program where private companies offer plans that are reimbursed by the government for care. Others like health care worker unions are eager to work with Sanders as hospitals around the country grapple with staff shortages and health care worker burnout.
With his new perch, Sanders seems inclined to stay in the Senate. He said he’s not interested in replacing the departing Labor Secretary, Marty Walsh, and refuses to talk about his own political future at all.
“I intend to use this committee to address the real issues are facing working class people,” he said.
Associated Press writers Amanda Seitz and Seung Min Kim in Washington and Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit contributed to this report.