United States: Supreme Court backs union busting at Starbucks

June 24, 2024
picture of starbucks workers holding signs
Starbucks is known for trying to prevent employees from organising in a union. Photo: sbworkersunited.org

The United States Supreme Court sided with international coffee chain Starbucks on June 13 in a decision that will make it easier for companies to sack union organisers.

The unelected body, with a hard-right majority, ruled for Starbucks against the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), upholding the company’s sacking of seven union organisers at its Memphis, Tennessee store.

The implications will be far-reaching and make it harder for unions to seek injunctions from the courts to prevent companies sacking organisers while their unfair dismissal cases are heard by the NLRB.

Justice Clarence Thomas, known for his hostility toward unions, and pro big business bias, delivered the decision, saying judges should follow the traditional rules before intervening in such cases. “A preliminary injunction is an ‘extraordinary’ equitable remedy that is never awarded as a right,” he said in Starbucks vs. McKinney.

Lynne Fox, president of Starbucks Workers United told the LA Times that despite the SC decision, unionising efforts at the coffee chain would not be deterred.

“Regardless of large corporations’ machinations at the Supreme Court, workers are continuing to organize. Just last week, workers at 20 Starbucks stores filed petitions to join Starbucks Workers United. And there are nearly 450 union Starbucks stores across the country. Workers’ momentum is unstoppable, and they will not let the Supreme Court slow them down.”

AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler denounced the decision and said the Court had “sided with corporate power over Starbucks baristas” in an “attack on the fundamental freedom to organise”.

“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.”

Starbucks owners have promoted themselves as supporters of liberal causes. However, in reality the company has a notoriously anti-union management.

It would rather fire workers speaking up for their rights and organising on the job, even going so far as to close stores and reopen new ones to keep the union out.

Starbucks said it took the Memphis case to the high court seeking to “level the playing field” in battles between union and management, even though most court rulings historically have been slow, deliberate and rarely give workers what they deserve.

The SC’s anti-union bent meant Starbucks management expected a favourable ruling.

The NLRB says temporary injunctions are needed to protect workers who are sacked in violation of labour laws. But the companies say they should not be forced to reinstate employees who break company rules.

Starbucks vs. McKinney arose from a 2022 case where the company fired seven baristas in Memphis who were seeking to organise a union.

As reported in the LA Times, the company argued the workers had violated company safety and security policies by remaining in the store after closing hours and inviting local media to interview them.

Starbucks Workers United called this “union busting” and filed a complaint with the NLRB, arguing the workers were sacked in retaliation for union organising.

Kathleen McKinney, a regional director of the NLRB, petitioned a federal judge to issue an order protecting the workers while the board considered their complaint. A district judge agreed there was “reasonable cause” to believe the workers had a valid claim, and she ordered Starbucks to reinstate the workers.

Starbucks argued the NLRB favours workers in these disputes and regularly wins orders from judges who force employers to reinstate workers while their claims are pending for months or years before the NLRB.

Their lawyers argued that in other non-labour cases, judges rarely issue such temporary injunctions and do so only if they are convinced the suing parties are likely to win in the end.

The bottom line is that workers can only rely on their own power to defeat employers like Starbucks.

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