Starbucks Seeks Supreme Court Protection From Being Ordered to Rehire Baristas Who Say They Were Fired for Union-Promoting Activities

The Supreme Court will consider factors when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) requests an order requiring an employer to rehire terminated workers before the completion of unfair labor practice proceedings. This case involves Starbucks Corp. v. McKinney, where seven baristas were fired in February 2022 for attempting to organize a union at a Memphis, Tennessee, store. Starbucks justified their dismissal by asserting that the employees, sometimes called the “Memphis 7,” had broken company rules by reopening their store after closing time and inviting people who weren’t employees, including a television crew, to go inside.

In June of that year, the shop became one of more than 400 Starbucks locations since 2021 that have voted in favor of joining Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. Kathleen McKinney, the NLRB director for the region that includes Memphis, sought an injunction in a federal district court to force Starbucks to give the Memphis 7 their jobs back while the case proceeded. By August 2022, a judge had ordered Starbucks to do that, and in September the baristas were back on staff.

The company has appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court because it believes the court should not have ordered the company to reinstate the workers while NLRB proceedings were still pending. The NLRB argues that the terminations chilled further union activities at the store even after the election. Starbucks argues that firing the seven workers had no effect because employees at that coffeehouse still voted in favor of unionization.

The justices will have to decide which approach federal courts should use when they consider requests for injunctions like this one. Currently, five appeals courts base their decision on a two-part test: whether there is “reasonable cause” to believe an unfair labor practice has occurred and whether granting an injunction would be “just and proper.” Four other appeals courts use a four-part test: whether the unfair labor practice case is likely to succeed on the merits in establishing that labor violations occurred, whether the workers the NLRB is attempting to protect will face irreparable harm without an injunction, whether those factors outweigh any hardships the employer is likely to face due to compliance with the court’s order, and whether issuing the injunction serves the public interest.

The potential impact of the court’s eventual ruling on this case is wider than that. Although the NLRB issues hundreds of unfair labor practice complaints against employers every year, it usually doesn’t turn to the courts to force the rehiring of employees. It only sought these types of injunctions 17 times in 2023, and seven of those efforts involved Starbucks. Despite the small number of overall injunctions, the large number of unfair labor practice complaints and the eventual 48 out of 49 findings of violations might support the rare use of injunctions in this case.

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