The Supreme Court Struck a Blow Against Workers’ Rights

On Thursday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in a case involving Starbucks and its union, seeing all justices side with the company against workers. The decision will make it easier for employers to get away with firing workers for unionizing.

The US Supreme Court building is seen on April 23, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

It just got easier for employers to get away with firing workers for organizing a union.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court sided with Starbucks in a decision against Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) affiliate that continues to organize Starbucks locations across the country. The union has organized more than 440 stores representing some ten thousand workers since the campaign began in December 2021.

The case, Starbucks Corporation v. McKinney, concerns the “Memphis Seven,” whom Starbucks fired during their store’s organizing drive in 2022. The workers claim that they were fired in retaliation for their organizing activities, alleging that the policy the company cited as the cause of their termination — the workers reopened the store after closing time, inviting nonemployees, including a television crew, inside — are not usually enforced.

SBWU filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over their termination, arguing that it constituted a violation of the workers’ legally protected right to engage in concerted activity. In response, the board issued a complaint against Starbucks, writing that the reason it fired the Memphis Seven was because they had “joined or assisted the union and engaged in concerted activities, and to discourage employees from engaging in these activities.” The NLRB then asked a federal judge in Tennessee for an injunction reinstating the seven; in August 2022, six months after they were fired, the judge issued that order.

Even as Starbucks finally agreed to get serious at the bargaining table with SBWU, stating that it hopes to reach a first contract by the end of the year, the coffee giant did not drop its objections to the injunction, which it appealed to the Supreme Court. But the NLRB’s actions were an attempt to remedy the chilling effect of the company’s actions: if other workers see that Starbucks can fire seven workers for engaging in protected activity and those workers have to wait years for justice to prevail in the legal realm, it will make them think twice about organizing.

“Starbucks has committed more than 400 violations of federal labor law, including firing 59 union leaders and supporters, according to decisions of administrative law judges,” wrote twelve former Starbucks workers who have been disciplined or fired in response to organizing in a friend-of-the-court brief. “More than 60 additional complaints against Starbucks are awaiting decisions.”

An employer’s ability to stall worker organizing by forcing workers to wait as legal matters wend their way through the courts is particularly damaging for SBWU, for whom momentum has been a key tool to spreading the organizing victories. That dynamic is why NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo called the federal judge’s granting of an injunction “a crucial step in ensuring that these workers, and all Starbucks workers, can freely exercise their right to join together to improve their working conditions and form a union.”

The Supreme Court judges disagree. Starbucks’s argument was that federal judges have different standards for granting injunctions to reinstate workers: some courts only require the NLRB to show that there is “reasonable cause” to believe an employer has violated labor law, while others make the board prove that not reinstating workers would cause “irreparable harm,” and that the board will likely prevail in its legal case. The NLRB called the difference semantic, arguing that there is no discrepancy in need of intervention by the Supreme Court.

Eight of the court’s nine judges agreed with Starbucks’s argument, ruling in favor of the stricter standard. As Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority opinion, “But, the reasonable-cause standard goes far beyond simply fine tuning the traditional criteria . . . it substantively lowers the bar for securing a preliminary injunction.” Justice Thomas noted that the stricter standard is usually applied in cases where other laws allow a judge to issue a preliminary injunction.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote a separate opinion that concurred with the overall judgment but stated that it’s easy to show irreparable harm to workers who have been terminated and will have to wait years for reinstatement as a case makes its way through the legal process. Thomas’s opinion, wrote Justice Jackson, ignores Congress’s “clear and comprehensive” directives in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) as to how courts should exercise discretion when it comes to the Board’s authority over labor disputes.

“Unfortunately, today’s decision appears to be another installment in a series of labor cases in which this Court has failed ‘to heed Congress’s intent,’” she wrote. “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.”

“Working people have so few tools to protect and defend themselves when their employers break the law,” Workers United president Lynne Fox said in a statement. “That makes today’s ruling by the Supreme Court particularly egregious.”

The case is but the first of many in the works from employers seeking to diminish the NLRB’s capacity. Amazon, SpaceX, and Trader Joe’s have all made arguments challenging the constitutionality of the board. These companies are taking advantage of the court’s rightward swing: the court is currently poised to remove power from federal agencies broadly by overturning a legal doctrine known as the Chevron deference, which establishes that judges must defer to federal agencies when interpreting ambiguous laws. Overturning that principle will be a major blow to the government’s regulatory power and as such is a priority for the Right.

Employers seeking to undermine the NLRB are but one prong of that broad attack. They’re chipping away at an agency that has been a thorn in their side in recent years, consistently objecting to union-busting campaigns across the country. With last week’s Supreme Court ruling, they’ve scored a victory in that project.