It was never going to be easy for intermittent Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to testify on Wednesday before a Senate committee. Chaired by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the members questioned Schultz about Starbucks’ treatment of workers and unions—and, in some cases, alleged illegal union-busting. But what really got under the former CEO’s skin was Sanders and other committee members repeatedly referring 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 twice served as Starbucks chairman and CEO, for two terms from 1986 to 2000 and then 2008 to 2017, before returning as the company’s interim CEO in 2022. He stepped down from that role last week. During Schultz’s tenure, in 1992, Starbucks went public and has become one of the world’s top brands, with a market cap of $118 billion. At the same time, Schultz’s net worth has catapulted to $3.7 billion in 2023, according to Forbes.
During the hearing, Sanders and Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota repeatedly laid into Schultz for his wealth, a topic Sanders has made central to his political career. During questioning, Smith suggested Starbucks workers had the right to unionize because of power imbalances between employees and 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 Smith’s 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 the Bayview housing projects in Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood, according to a 2011 profile in the New York Times. When Schultz was exploring running as an Independent presidential candidate for the 2020 election, he often mentioned his rags-to-riches background.
Some have referred to Schultz’s characterization of his childhood as misleading, with one former Bayview resident who knew Schultz personally describing the project as a “shiny, wonderful world” that was “middle-class, not lower middle,” according to a 2019 interview with the Washington Post.
Schultz’s frustration with Sanders’ characterization of the wealthy was shared by some Republican lawmakers on Wednesday, 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.
“I think you got an all-time record here. You’ve made more misstatements in a shorter period of time than I have ever heard,” Sanders told Mullin Wednesday. “If I’m worth $8 million, that’s good news to me. I’m not aware of it. That’s a lie.”
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.
Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.