The Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case in which Starbucks is arguing that it does not have to follow a lower court’s order to rehire a group of union activists the company fired in Memphis, Tennessee, in a case that could have reverberating effects across the entire labor movement.
The core of Starbucks’s argument revolves around a standard in federal labor law that officials use to grant or request injunctive relief, such as ordering the rehiring of employees, to provide relief for workers affected by an employer’s labor law violations. The company has argued that different courts use different standards for issuing these rulings, while labor officials have countered that the differences are not substantial and that there is already an agreed-upon standard. The Department of Justice has backed the labor officials’ argument.
If the Supreme Court, with its conservative supermajority, sides with Starbucks, it could have a widespread chilling effect on union organizing across the country, giving more leeway to employers to act against unionizing employees with fewer potential consequences.
“Starbucks is seeking a bailout for its illegal union busting from Trump’s Supreme Court,” said Starbucks Workers United in a statement. “[T]he world’s biggest coffee company is now using a technicality to align itself with and do the bidding of the billionaire class. Starbucks is on a mission to weaken the National Labor Relations Board’s ability to hold billion dollar corporations accountable for violating the law. The company is trying to eliminate one of the most effective tools the Board has to hold corporations accountable for unlawful acts.”
“With the Supreme Court agreeing to take up the Memphis case, Starbucks just expanded its war on its own employees to a war on all U.S. workers,” the union concluded.
In the early stages of the Starbucks workers’ union movement in 2022, Starbucks fired seven employees who were leading a union effort at a Memphis store; the seven made up nearly the entirety of the organizing committee at the store at the time. The union rallied against the firing, which was one of the most sweeping acts that the company had taken against the union at the time, dubbing the group the “Memphis Seven,” who Starbucks said had violated company policies after they did a local news segment about their organizing efforts.
Shortly after, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a complaint saying that the company fired the workers illegally, retaliating against the workers for exercising their right to unionize. The company has said that it didn’t violate labor law with the firing.
New York Times labor reporter Noam Scheiber noted that the fact that the Supreme Court is hearing the case now means that justices are likely to rule to raise the standard for employers to face orders to enforce labor law, thus making it harder for workers to unionize; the Court declined to hear a similar case in 2014, Scheiber noted.
With the recent resurgence of the labor movement has also come a resurgence of conservative attacks on organized labor. The conservative lobbying group U.S. Chamber of Commerce had filed a brief in favor of Starbucks urging the Supreme Court to take up the case, saying that it’s important to combat labor officials’ “broader efforts to tip the scales in favor of unions and against employers.” Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX recently filed a lawsuit against the NLRB challenging the very structure of the agency after the board found that the company had illegally fired employees.