Supreme Court to Hear Starbucks Challenge to Labor Ruling

The Supreme Court is set to hear Starbucks’s challenge on Tuesday to a federal judge’s order to reinstate workers who were attempting to unionize a store in Memphis.

Starbucks is asking the court to make it harder for the National Labor Relations Board to obtain intervention by judges in cases where a company is accused of violating labor law. The case stems from the February 2022 firing of seven workers who let local journalists into a closed store to conduct interviews about their unionization efforts.

If Starbucks prevails, it would make it harder for workers to be reinstated if they’re fired during a labor dispute. The case is being heard a day before Starbucks is set to return to the bargaining table with the union that represents about 10,000 of its workers after a contentious, monthslong impasse.

Starbucks, which has faced hundreds of accusations of labor law violations across the country, argues that there is a patchwork of standards under which the N.L.R.B. can seek a court injunction. The appellate court in this case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, applies a lower standard, and Starbucks is pushing the Supreme Court to apply a stricter, uniform standard nationwide.

The standard used by the Sixth Circuit considers two factors. Other circuits use a four-factor test, which requires that the N.L.R.B. prove the possibility of irreparable harm if the injunction to reinstate workers isn’t granted, among other things.

Matthew Bodie, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, said that injunctions were an important tool for the labor board. Without the ability to reinstate workers while proceedings play out, he said, employers could intimidate workers and chip away at union-supporting ranks.

“It dampens the whole process, and it’s more likely to result in a union loss,” said Mr. Bodie, a former labor board attorney.

Starbucks said the workers were fired because admitting the journalists into the store violated several company policies. Starbucks Workers United, the union representing the company’s workers, filed an unfair labor practice charge over the firings, arguing that the company selectively enforced the rules against organized workers. The labor board issued a complaint against Starbucks two months later.

A federal judge granted the labor board’s request to reinstate the workers while proceedings over the firings played out, which could take years. An appellate judge upheld the reinstatements last year, and the company requested the Supreme Court review. The high court agreed to hear the case in January.

Lisa Blatt, a partner at the law firm Williams & Connolly, is representing Starbucks and is a veteran of the Supreme Court bar. In the past two years, she won rulings in favor of Google — a closely watched case seeking to make tech companies liable for content posted by its users — and for Jack Daniel’s in an intellectual property case against the seller of a dog toy.

Elizabeth B. Prelogar, the U.S. solicitor general, is representing the labor board. She has represented the government in several high-profile cases, including Dobbs v. Jackson in June 2022, which overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the constitutionally protected right to an abortion.

Starbucks workers began organizing in 2021 with three Buffalo-area stores. Now, the union represents about 10,000 workers across more than 400 corporate-owned stores.

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