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Supreme Court to hear dispute over Starbucks firing pro-union workers

This is the first case to reach the Supreme Court involving an ongoing nationwide campaign to unionize Starbucks stores.
A Starbucks in Washington, D.C.
A Starbucks in Washington, D.C.Graeme Sloan / Sipa USA via AP file
/ Source: Reuters

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a challenge by Starbucks to a judicial decision that required the coffee chain to rehire seven employees at one of its cafes in Memphis, Tennessee, who a federal agency determined were fired for supporting unionization.

The justices took up a Starbucks appeal of a lower court’s ruling that found that the company likely discouraged other employees from exercising their rights under U.S. labor law by firing the Memphis workers in 2022. This is the first case to reach the Supreme Court involving an ongoing nationwide campaign to unionize Starbucks stores.

The Memphis store is one of more than 370 Starbucks locations in the United States to unionize since 2021. The Seattle-based company was non-union for decades.

The U.S. National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) concluded that Starbucks unlawfully fired the Memphis employees for supporting the union drive and to send a message to other workers.

The NLRB sought an injunction to compel Starbucks to rehire the employees, which Memphis-based U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman granted. The Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Lipman’s decision in 2023, faulting the actions of Starbucks.

Starbucks has said it fired the workers for violating a company safety policy by opening their store without consent and allowing journalists inside. The company last year said it rehired the seven employees to comply with Lipman’s order, but still pursued the appeal of the 6th Circuit decision to the Supreme Court.

The company has said the 6th Circuit applied too low of a bar by requiring the NLRB to show only that there was “reasonable cause” to believe the company committed labor law violations. Major business groups, in urging the Supreme Court to hear the Starbucks appeal, argued that the 6th Circuit and other federal courts have made it too easy for the NLRB to win judicial orders requiring businesses to take steps to address allegedly illegal labor practices.

More than 700 complaints have been filed with the NLRB accusing Starbucks of unlawful labor practices such as firing union supporters, spying on workers and closing stores during labor campaigns.

The 6th Circuit is considering a Starbucks appeal of an NLRB ruling in a separate case barring the company from firing or disciplining employees at a location in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Other U.S. appeals courts are reviewing NLRB rulings that Starbucks illegally fired union organizers in Philadelphia and has refused to bargain with unionized workers in Seattle.

The company has denied wrongdoing and said it offers employees competitive wages and benefits and respects their rights under federal labor law.