Starbucks asks U.S. Supreme Court to decide on a union issue

The coffee chain wants the nation's highest court to decide if employees were truly dismissed because of their union activities.
Starbucks is also asking the Supreme Court for clarification on a legal standard. | Photo: Shutterstock

Starbucks’ union battle has escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, the coffee chain asked the nation’s highest court to review a case that resulted in an order from a U.S. appeals court to rehire employees who were dismissed from a store in Memphis, Tenn. The discharged employees were dubbed the Tennessee Seven, whose plight was used as a rallying point in the Starbucks Workers United’s effort to organize other units.

The petition for what’s known as a writ of certiorari—essentially an appeal—also seeks a ruling on what criteria should be used by federal courts when the National Labor Relations Board asks for an immediate injunction against an employer contending with a unionization effort.

The filing contends that the NLRB, the federal agency that regulates union elections, often seeks an injunction—an order that an employer change or reverse its actions—before the particulars of a case are fully evaluated.

Starbucks said that lower courts have used different standards in deciding NLRB requests. The directive affecting staff of the Memphis unit was based on a “relaxed” assessment of the NLRB request, according to the coffee giant.  It maintains that the lax evaluation overlooked evidence refuting the NLRB’s allegations that Starbucks engaged in unfair labor practices.

“That’s why we’re asking the Supreme Court to reconsider the standard some lower courts use to evaluate NLRB injunction requests,” Starbucks said in a blog post explaining the action to employees.

It noted that even the U.S. Court of Appeals judge who heard the NLRB request has acknowledged that another court may have decided the matter differently.

“As Sixth Circuit Judge [Chad] Readler emphasized in his opinion, many other federal courts subject NLRB injunction requests to a more appropriate four-factor test,” Starbucks said in the blog post. “That standard, according to Judge Readler, may well have prevented the NLRB from obtaining an injunction in this matter.”

It contends that Readler, despite his reservations, accepted the NLRB’s assertions that the Tennessee employees were fired merely for exercising their rights under federal unionization regulations.

“Those conditions were far from the case at our Memphis store,” said Starbucks. “Some partners entered the store after it had been closed to the public, opened the safe after hours without authorization, brought third parties into the closed store and hosted media interviews behind the bar.

“Even the Board’s own administrative law judge,” a judicial figure used to resolve grievances filed with the NLRB, “agreed that what occurred in our Memphis store constituted an ‘audacious intrusion,’” it wrote.

Since three Starbucks stores in Buffalo, N.Y., began a drive to unionize the chain more than two years ago, Starbucks Workers United and its parent organization, Workers United, have accused the chain of engaging in unfair labor practices as defined by the NLRB. Starbucks has maintained throughout the time that actions like holding meetings with employees were completely legal under those rules.

To date, about 358 Starbucks outlets have been certified by the NLRB as union shops, and the staffs of 81 stores have voted to remain union-free.

Workers at 16 unionized stores have asked the NLRB to hold a second election in hopes of rescinding their representation by Starbucks Workers United.

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