Supreme Court hears dispute over Starbucks’ firing of pro-union workers

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to accept a challenge by Starbucks to a court order that required the coffee chain to rehire seven workers at one of its cafes in Memphis, Tennessee, who a federal agency said were fired for supporting unionization.

The justices appealed to Starbucks a lower court ruling that found 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 unify Starbucks stores.

The Memphis store is one of more than 370 Starbucks locations in the United States to be unionized as of 2021.

The Seattle-based company was non-union for decades.


Laid off Memphis employees in 2022.
Starbucks was forced to rehire seven employees at one of its cafes in Memphis, Tennessee. AP

The National Labor Relations Board concluded that Starbucks unlawfully fired the Memphis workers because they supported the union drive and wanted to send a message to other employees.

The NLRB requested an injunction forcing Starbucks to rehire the employees, which Memphis-based U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman granted.

The Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Lipman’s decision in 2023, faulting Starbucks’ actions.


Supreme Court Building
Starbucks appealed a lower court’s ruling, which found that the company likely discouraged other employees from exercising their rights under U.S. labor law by firing the workers. AFP via Getty Images

Starbucks has said it fired the employees because they violated the company’s safety policy by opening their store without permission and allowing journalists inside.

The company said last year it had rehired the seven employees to comply with Lipman’s order, but still appealed the 6th Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court.

The company has said the 6th Circuit set the bar too low by requiring the NLRB to show only that there was “reasonable cause” to believe the company had committed labor law violations.

Major business groups argued before the Supreme Court to hear Starbucks’ appeal that the 6th Circuit and other federal courts have made it too easy for the NLRB to obtain court orders requiring companies to take steps to address allegedly illegal labor practices to take.

More than 700 complaints have been filed with the NLRB accusing Starbucks of unlawful labor practices, such as firing union supporters, spying on employees 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 the NLRB’s rulings that Starbucks illegally fired union organizers in Philadelphia and refused to bargain with union workers in Seattle.

The company has denied wrongdoing and said it provides workers with competitive wages and benefits and respects their rights under federal labor law.

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