What the Starbucks Case at the Supreme Court Is All About. Hint: It’s Not Coffee

Starbucks barista Florentino Escobar and six co-workers from Memphis, Tennessee, were fired by the company in February 2022 after they announced their intent to unionize. Starbucks claimed the employees had violated multiple company policies, including allowing a television crew into the store after hours. The workers believe they were fired for trying to organize a union.

The Supreme Court heard arguments on whether a lower court erred in ordering Starbucks to reinstate Escobar and his co-workers while their firings were being investigated. The majority of the Supreme Court appeared sympathetic to Starbucks, which argued that the government should have to meet a higher legal bar when it asks courts to intervene during labor investigations.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, expected by the end of June, could have far-reaching implications for labor organizing efforts across the U.S. and across industries, from auto to retail to academia and beyond. A 10(j) injunction is arguably the most powerful tool the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has to enforce the law. It is also one of the few tools the agency has at its disposal.

In this Starbucks case, the NLRB asked a federal court in Tennessee for an injunction after a preliminary investigation into the Memphis firings. The court granted the request and ordered Starbucks to stop interfering with its employees’ union activities and temporarily reinstate the Memphis 7. Union membership grew last year, but only 10% of U.S. workers belong to a union.

A legal fight ensued, and in Memphis, the organizing campaign did not die. Union organizers pressed on, and the union election was held and baristas voted 11 to 3 to join Workers United, the Starbucks employees union. With the injunction granted, the Memphis 7 went back to work while the NLRB looked into their case.

However, Starbucks, unhappy with the lower court’s decision to grant the injunction, asked the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to block it. The court agreed with the lower court that some of the requested interim relief, including temporary reinstatement of the Memphis Seven, was just and proper.

Starbucks is seeking the Supreme Court to determine if some federal circuits, including the 6th Circuit, set too low a bar for granting injunctions. The company argues that injunctive relief should be granted only in extraordinary cases and that there should be consistency in how it is granted. Currently, federal courts use two different standards when deciding whether to grant injunctions in cases involving labor organizing. Starbucks wants the Supreme Court to impose one standard across the courts, which Starbucks considers more rigorous.

However, Bill Baker, an associate with employment law firm Wigdor, doubts that this would make much of a difference. He found that injunction petitions filed between 2011 and 2020 were denied at higher rates under the “more relaxed” test. Additionally, a majority of injunction petitions filed during that period were filed in just two federal circuits — the 2nd and the 9th — both of which already use the test Starbucks favors.

Harvard’s Block worries about the message that a Supreme Court ruling could send, as it would send a strong signal that judges should bring more scrutiny to these cases. With employers like Starbucks mounting historically aggressive anti-union campaigns, Block believes it’s the wrong time for the Supreme Court to be making it more difficult for federal labor officials to protect workers’ rights.

In Memphis, Escobar says he will be following Tuesday’s arguments at the Supreme Court, fearing that the Supreme Court making it harder for labor unions across the nation to follow in their footsteps. Meanwhile, there has been some movement in the labor board’s investigation of the Memphis 7 case, with an NLRB administrative law judge ruled that Starbucks did indeed violate the law when it terminated five of the seven workers, including Escobar, but not the other two.

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