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Supreme Court Sides with Starbucks, Saying NLRB Overstepped its Authority

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The recently decided Starbucks v. McKinney case, which tested the National Labor Relations Board’s authority to demand that workers fired for union organizing be reinstated, went in the retailer’s favor in a near-unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision. A group of Starbucks workers labeling themselves the “Memphis Seven” had invited a TV news crew into a closed Starbucks store and were subsequently fired for violating company rules, although the group claimed they were let go because of their unionizing efforts.

A federal judge in Tennessee issued an injunction reinstating the workers in August 2022. According to the New York Times, such injunctions are often granted even before the underlying issues in a case are resolved due to the length of time — sometimes years — often needed to reach a conclusion, during which time other workers may become discouraged from organizing.

Starbucks had argued that federal courts used different standards when deciding whether to grant these types of injunctions, with some requiring the NLRB to show “reasonable cause” to believe a company violated labor law. A stricter standard would require agencies to show that not reinstating the workers would result in “irreparable harm.” The majority opinion rejected the NLRB’s argument, throwing its support behind the more stringent standard for issuing injunctions.

Anti-Union Decision Comes as Starbucks and Workers United Negotiate

Ironically, this decision came down just as Starbucks and Workers United, the union representing workers at more than 450 Starbucks stores, have moved forward with negotiations. In April 2024, the two parties reported “significant progress” in collective bargaining sessions held in Atlanta. Back in May 2023, Workers United was pressuring the retailer to negotiate for a national contract rather than on a store-by-store basis.

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Starbucks agreed with the decision but remains committed to negotiating with the union, according to a statement by spokesperson Jay Go Guasch: “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. Consistent federal standards are important in ensuring that employees know their rights and consistent labor practices are upheld no matter where in the country they work and live.”

Workers United President Lynne Fox was critical of Starbucks’ continued pursuit of the case. “Starbucks should have dropped this case the day it committed to chart a new path forward with its workers, instead of aligning itself with other giant corporations intent on stifling workers organizing,” said Fox in a statement. “It’s incongruous to want to build a productive, positive relationship with workers and at the same time lead an attack on one of the few mechanisms they have to defend themselves against unscrupulous employers.”

Fox noted that organizing efforts are continuing, with workers at 20 Starbucks stores filing petitions to join the union during the last week. She believes the Supreme Court decision represents a setback for workers.

“Working people have so few tools to protect and defend themselves when their employers break the law,” said Fox. “That makes today’s ruling by the Supreme Court particularly egregious. It underscores how the economy is rigged against working people all the way up to the Supreme Court.”

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