Supreme Court rules for Starbucks, limits power of judges to protect fired union organizers

LOS ANGELES, CA - December 16, 2022: Employees, supporters and labor organizers hold signs as they strike a Starbucks location on S. Central Ave. downtown, one of about 100 Starbucks stores across America on strike for the next three days, as the union attempts to turn up the pressure in it year-long battle with the coffee retailer on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Employees, supporters and labor organizers hold signs as they strike at a Starbucks location in Los Angeles. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The Supreme Court ruled for Starbucks on Thursday and limited the power of judges and the National Labor Relations Board to protect union organizers.

In a 9-0 decision, the court overturned a ruling by a federal judge in Tennessee who sided with the NLRB and ordered Starbucks to rehire the so-called "Memphis Seven."

In doing so, the justices set a higher legal standard to prevent judges from deferring to the labor board in pending disputes.

Justice Clarence Thomas said judges should follow the traditional rules before intervening to give a temporary victory for the workers and the NLRB.

"A preliminary injunction is an 'extraordinary' equitable remedy that is never awarded as of right," he said in Starbucks vs. McKinney.

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AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler denounced the decision and said the court had "sided with corporate power over Starbucks baristas today in a direct attack on the fundamental freedom to organize a union on the job. This decision sets a higher threshold for courts to reinstate workers who have been unfairly fired. In a system that is already stacked against workers, this will make it even harder for them to get back their jobs."

But the National Federation of Independent Business said it was pleased the justices ruled the NLRB "does not receive special treatment" in court. “Preliminary injunctions are not a benign, administrative procedure. They are a considerable intrusion on a business,” said Beth Milito, executive director of NFIB’s Small Business Legal Center.

Judges in different parts of the nation had followed differing approaches in these cases, and the court sided with those who said judges should be reluctant to intervene and issue a temporary injunction.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented in part, saying she did not think judges were exercising too much power in these cases and should generally defer to the labor board.

"I am loath to bless this aggrandizement of judicial power where Congress has so plainly limited the discretion of the courts, and where it so clearly intends for the expert agency it has created to make the primary determinations about both merits and process," she wrote.

Starbucks has been aggressive in fighting against union organizers. The coffee company said it took the Memphis case to the high court seeking to "level the playing field" in these labor-management battles.

At issue was what the company called a union-friendly legal standard that allowed judges to intervene early and to rule against the employers.

"Getting an injunction is often the whole ballgame," said Washington attorney Lisa Blatt on behalf of the company in Starbucks vs. McKinney.

The NLRB says these temporary injunctions are needed to protect workers who were fired in violation of the labor laws. But the companies say they should not be forced to rehire employees who broke their work rules.

In February 2022, Starbucks fired seven baristas in Memphis who were seeking to organize a union. The company said the dismissals arose from "significant violations" of their safety and security policies. They said the employees had remained in the store after closing hours and invited local media to interview them.

Starbucks Workers United called this "union busting" and filed a complaint with the NLRB contending the workers were fired in retaliation for their organizing efforts.

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M. Kathleen McKinney, a regional director of the NLRB, petitioned a federal judge to issue an order protecting the workers while the board considered their complaint. U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman agreed there was "reasonable cause" to believe the workers had a valid claim, and she ordered Starbucks to rehire the seven employees.

Starbucks said the NLRB leans in favor of workers in these disputes and regularly wins orders from judges who force employers to rehire workers while their claims are pending for months or years before the labor board. Their lawyers argued that in other non-labor cases, judges rarely issue such temporary injunctions and do so only if they are convinced the suing parties are likely to win in the end.

Lynne Fox, president of the Workers United, said the unionizing efforts will not be deterred.

“Regardless of large corporations’ machinations at the Supreme Court, workers are continuing to organize. Just last week, workers at 20 Starbucks stores filed petitions to join Starbucks Workers United. And there are nearly 450 union Starbucks stores across the country. Workers’ momentum is unstoppable and they will not let the Supreme Court slow them down," he said.

Starbucks said in a statement that the ruling had upheld the principle of "consistent federal standards" across the country.

"Partners are the core of our business, and we are committed to providing everyone who wears the green apron a bridge to a better future. We will continue to focus on making progress toward our goal of reaching ratified contracts for represented stores this year," the company said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.