The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to hear a case brought by Starbucks challenging a federal judge’s order to reinstate seven employees who were fired at a store in Memphis amid a union campaign there.
Starbucks argued that the criteria for such intervention by judges in labor cases, which can also include measures like reopening shuttered stores, vary across regions of the country because federal appeals courts may adhere to different standards.
A regional director for the National Labor Relations Board, the company’s opponent in the case, argued that the apparent differences in criteria among appeals courts were semantic rather than substantive, and that a single effective standard was already in place nationwide.
The labor board had urged the Supreme Court to stay out of the case, whose outcome could affect union organizing across the country.
The agency asks federal judges for temporary relief, like reinstatement of fired workers, because litigating charges of unfair labor practices can take years. The agency argues that retaliation against workers can have a chilling effect on organizing in the meantime, even if the workers ultimately win their case.
In a statement on Friday, Starbucks said, “We are pleased the Supreme Court has decided to consider our request to level the playing field for all U.S. employers by ensuring that a single standard is applied as federal district courts.”
The labor board declined to comment.
The union organizing campaign at Starbucks began in the Buffalo area in 2021 and quickly spread to other states. The union, Workers United, represents workers at more than 370 Starbucks stores, out of roughly 9,600 company-owned stores in the United States.
The labor board has issued dozens of complaints against the company based on hundreds of accusations of labor law violations, including threats and retaliation against workers who are seeking to unionize and a failure to bargain in good faith. This week, the agency issued a complaint accusing the company of unilaterally changing work hours and schedules in unionized stores around the country.
The company has denied violating labor law and said in a statement that it contested the latest complaint and planned “to defend our lawful business decisions” before a judge.
The case that led to the dispute before the Supreme Court involves seven workers who were fired in February 2022 after they let local journalists into a closed store to conduct interviews. Starbucks said the incident violated company rules; the workers and the union said the company did not enforce such rules against workers who were not involved in union organizing.
The labor board found merit in the workers’ accusations and issued a complaint two months later. A federal judge granted the labor board’s request for an order reinstating the workers that August, and a federal appeals court upheld the order.
“Starbucks is seeking a bailout for its illegal union-busting from Trump’s Supreme Court,” Workers United said in a statement on Friday. “There’s no doubt that Starbucks broke federal law by firing workers in Memphis for joining together in a union.”
Starbucks said it was critical for the Supreme Court to wade into the case because the labor board was becoming more ambitious in asking judges to order remedies like reinstatement of fired workers.
The labor board noted in its filing with the Supreme Court that it was bringing fewer injunctions overall than in some recent years — only 21 were authorized in 2022, down from more than 35 in 2014 and 2015.
A Supreme Court decision could in principle raise the bar for judges to issue orders reinstating workers, effectively limiting the labor board’s ability to win temporary relief for workers during a union campaign.
The case is not the only recent challenge to the labor board’s authority. After the board issued a complaint accusing the rocket company SpaceX of illegally firing eight employees for criticizing its chief executive, Elon Musk, the company filed a lawsuit this month arguing that the agency’s setup for adjudicating complaints is unconstitutional.
The company said in its lawsuit that the agency’s structure violated its right to a trial by jury.