Supreme Court backs Starbucks to impose stricter test on NLRB injunctions

Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Starbucks on Thursday, in a unanimous decision ordering circuit courts to use a four-factor test when evaluating whether to grant the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) injunctions sought under Section 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in place of the less-stringent two-factor test used by several circuits.
  • The SCOTUS opinion, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, vacated a court of appeals decision that concurred with a district judge in granting the NLRB an injunction to compel Starbucks to rehire seven workers fired during an organizing drive in Memphis, Tennessee.
  • The NLRB, in an email to Restaurant Dive, said the case would now be remanded to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals for another hearing under Starbucks’ preferred standard.

Dive Insight:

Lynne Fox, president of Workers United, said the ruling was “egregious” and weakened the power of workers to protect themselves against unfair labor practices. Fox’s union, the affiliate of the Service Employee’s International Union responsible for the Starbucks Workers United Campaign, reached an agreement with Starbucks to resolve some of the campaign’s ongoing litigation in February, and has met with Starbucks in two national bargaining sessions in recent months. 

“Starbucks should have dropped this case the day it committed to chart a new path forward with its workers, instead of aligning itself with other giant corporations intent on stifling worker organizing,” Fox wrote in an emailed statement. Neither Starbucks nor Workers United responded to a request to clarify why this case was not included in the February framework agreement.

The NLRB declined to comment specifically on the content of the ruling, but in April NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo argued that the difference between the two- and four-factor tests was “terminology, not substantive.” Further, board records show that efforts to obtain Section 10(j) injunctions are relatively rare and that the board generally prevails regardless of the standard at play.

Thomas argued that the NLRA Section 10(j) “bears no resemblance to the language that Congress has employed when it has altered the normal equitable rules” needed to obtain temporary injunctions.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who dissented with parts of the decision, argued the court’s decision ignored the historical context of the NLRA, which sought to rectify “an ignominious history of abuse” by which courts used injunctions to break strikes and destroy labor organizations. The NLRB, Jackson argued, exists to interpret labor law and courts should generally treat the board as “the primary adjudicator of labor disputes and the central expositor of labor policy.” Jackson argued courts should not apply the fourth of the four factors — an analysis of the likelihood of the NLRB’s success on the merits — as strictly as Thomas suggested.

Starbucks did not respond to a request to comment on the outcome or whether the company anticipated the case would lead to a change in the employment of the seven Memphis workers, who Starbucks has maintained were fired for violating company policy.