Thoughts on the Supreme Court’s Starbucks ruling

The “Memphis Seven” are seven people who worked at a Starbucks cafe in Memphis, Tennessee. For some time, they had been organizing fellow Starbucks workers in their state, telling them that joining a union could improve their lives. In the end, management terminated the Memphis Seven’s employment over claims that they allowed someone to photograph their Starbucks location.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) investigated the case and ruled that the employees in question were fired because of their union activity. The NLRB has a process for issuing an official final ruling and that process takes a long time. So they went to federal court, and got a court order – an injunction – for Starbucks to reinstate the Memphis Seven s immediately, without waiting for that process to be officially complete. This is a procedure that the NLRB uses infrequently (in less than one percent of cases). Based on cases that have gone to the various courts of appeals over the years, judges in some states have different definitions for the rule to decide to issue an injunction, but they generally issue injunctions when the NLRB requests it. One reason for this is that the agency generally only requests an injunction in cases that they consider pretty egregious, and since the people requesting the injunction are the same people who are going to make the decision later, it is reasonable that they have a very good idea of what the end ruling is going to be.

Starbucks appealed the NLRB’s move. The company argued that everything from the way the general counsel of the NLRB is appointed to the way their budget is approved is unconstitutional.  Now, roughly two years after the original incident, the Supreme Court has ruled that there should be one criteria used for all injunction requests nationwide, and that it should be more or less the same standard that is  used for injunctions in other types of cases. So Starbucks did win this case, but their win just means that the NLRB must go back to the judge and request an injunction again — and, based on what some of the Justices said, the judge will likely grant the injunction again, using the stricter criteria.

Congress needs to step in here, and pass new legislation which either makes the NLRB have a quicker decision-making process or specifically determine the criteria for getting an injunction to protect workers. Any decision that takes years is essentially justice denied because workers at places like Starbucks have almost surely moved on to some new employment in the meantime, and might not even want to work at their old companies anymore.

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