Starbucks Need Not Rehire Pro-Union Employees, Supreme Court Rules

In a win for Starbucks on Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the coffee chain could not be compelled to rehire fired employees who were trying to unionize. Specifically, the Court held that a request for a preliminary injunction under Section 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act must be evaluated under the traditional four factors as laid out in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7 (2008).

The dispute between Starbucks and multiple former employees of one of its Memphis, Tennessee locations arose after those employees announced plans to unionize and formed a committee. The employees then invited a television news crew to visit the store after hours so that they could promote their unionizing endeavor. The employees involved with the event were subsequently fired by Starbucks for violating the company’s policy.

After issuing a complaint against Starbucks for violating the employees’ right to unionize and discriminating against union supporters, the National Labor Relations Board filed a Section 10(j) petition in federal district court, seeking a preliminary injunction that would, in part, require Starbucks to rehire the employees it fired.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee applied a two-part test: (1) whether “there is reasonable cause to believe that unfair labor practices have occurred,” and (2) whether injunctive relief is “just and proper.” McKinney v. Ozburn-Hessey Logistics, LLC, 875 F.3d 333, 339 (2017). The District Court, finding that the Board’s legal theory was not frivolous and relief was just and proper because it was necessary to return the parties to the status quo and protect the Board’s remedial powers while the proceedings were ongoing, granted an injunction, which the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

However, McKinney is only used by some courts to evaluate Section 10(j) injunctions. Others use the four-part test from Winter. Addressing the circuit split, the U.S. Supreme Court favored the Winter test, which requires that a plaintiff show that “he is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest.” The Court found that there was no clear directive from Congress to veer from the traditional test in Winter and that the test articulated in McKinney lowers the bar for obtaining a preliminary injunction.

Additional Reading

Supreme Court, siding with Starbucks, makes it harder for NLRB to win court orders in labor disputes, AP News (June 13, 2024)

US Supreme Court backs Starbucks over fired pro-union workers, Reuters (June 13, 2024)

Starbucks Corp. v. McKinney, 602 U.S. __ (2024)

Image Credit: Fotokon /