Supreme Court rules for Starbucks, limits power of judges to protect fired union organizers

Employees, supporters and labor organizers hold signs in 2022 as they strike a Starbucks location in Los Angeles. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled for Starbucks on Thursday and limited the power of judges and the National Labor Relations Board to protect union organizers.

In a 9-0 decision, the court overturned a ruling by a federal judge in Tennessee who sided with the NLRB and ordered Starbucks to rehire the so-called “Memphis Seven.”


In doing so, the justices set a higher legal standard to prevent judges from deferring to the labor board in pending disputes.

Justice Clarence Thomas said judges should follow the traditional rules before intervening to give a temporary victory for the workers and the NLRB.

“A preliminary injunction is an ‘extraordinary’ equitable remedy that is never awarded as of right,” he said in Starbucks vs. McKinney.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler denounced the decision and said the court had “sided with corporate power over Starbucks baristas today in a direct attack on the fundamental freedom to organize a union on the job. This decision sets a higher threshold for courts to reinstate workers who have been unfairly fired. In a system that is already stacked against workers, this will make it even harder for them to get back their jobs.”

But the National Federation of Independent Business said it was pleased the justices ruled the NLRB “does not receive special treatment” in court. “Preliminary injunctions are not a benign, administrative procedure. They are a considerable intrusion on a business,” said Beth Milito, executive director of NFIB’s Small Business Legal Center.

Judges in different parts of the nation had followed differing approaches in these cases, and the court sided with those who said judges should be reluctant to intervene and issue a temporary injunction.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented in part, saying she did not think judges were exercising too much power in these cases and should generally defer to the labor board.

“I am loath to bless this aggrandizement of judicial power where Congress has so plainly limited the discretion of the courts, and where it so clearly intends for the expert agency it has created to make the primary determinations about both merits and process,” she wrote.

Starbucks has been aggressive in fighting against union organizers. The coffee company said it took the Memphis case to the high court seeking to “level the playing field” in these labor-management battles.

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