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The Supreme Court is getting involved in the fight over unionizing at Starbucks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's my question about an upcoming Supreme Court case - when the justices are on the way to hear the case at the United States Supreme Court building here in Washington, DC., will any of them stop for coffee? And if so, will they stop at Starbucks? The case involves Starbucks and some baristas who want to unionize. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: This all started with the so-called Memphis Seven - seven Starbucks workers in Tennessee who were fired in early 2020, two days after launching a union campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: New tonight - some Memphis Starbucks employees out of a job this evening...

HSU: Starbucks said the workers had violated multiple company policies, including by allowing a TV crew into the store after hours. The workers believe they were fired because they were trying to unionize. Florentino Escobar is one of the Memphis Seven. He calls what's happening now a war.

FLORENTINO ESCOBAR: Not only with us, but I feel like now it's with all U.S. workers.

HSU: Escobar has worked at Starbucks since he was 16. Now a college student, he says he can't quite believe how far Starbucks has taken this fight.

ESCOBAR: I was in shock because I was like, wait, the Supreme Court? Like, we're talking the U.S. Supreme Court?

HSU: Now, the main question the court will consider actually has little to do with what happened at the Starbucks in Memphis. It's about what happened later in the federal courts. Let's go back to 2022. After the firings, the union Workers United filed charges against Starbucks with the National Labor Relations Board. That's the federal agency tasked with protecting the right to organize. The NLRB looked at the facts and decided to ask a federal judge for something called an injunction - an order to Starbucks to stop interfering with its employees' union activities and temporarily reinstate the seven it had fired.

SHARON BLOCK: To sort of stop the bleeding.

HSU: Sharon Block is a Harvard law professor and former NLRB board member. She says injunctions are an incredibly important tool - one of the only tools the NLRB has to enforce the law. They serve to pause potential wrongdoing while cases are being investigated. And that's key because it can take years for the NLRB to process cases. If you can't stop illegal behavior, Block says, by the time the labor board finally rules on a case, it may be too late. Any remedy may be meaningless.

BLOCK: You know, life moves on. The organizing campaign may be dead by the time the board issues a decision, because everybody got freaked out by the lead union organizers getting fired.

HSU: Now, that's not what happened in Memphis. The judge at the federal district court did grant the injunction and ordered Starbucks to temporarily reinstate the Memphis Seven, but Starbucks moved to block that order. The case moved up to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court's decision. That's when Starbucks asked the Supreme Court to weigh in. In its petition, Starbucks noted how onerous injunctions can be for companies and asked the Supreme Court to reconsider how injunctions are granted.

BILL BAKER: It's a really esoteric legal thing that's going on here.

HSU: That's Bill Baker, an associate with the employment law firm Wigdor. Turns out there are two different standards, or tests, that federal courts use when deciding whether to grant injunctions. Starbucks is arguing that the Sixth Circuit used too relaxed a standard in the case of the Memphis Seven. The company suggests had the court used the other test, the one Starbucks considers more rigorous, maybe the injunction would have been denied. Now, Starbucks wants the Supreme Court to impose that standard across all the courts, arguing there should be consistency. Bill Baker doubts whether that would make much of a difference.

BAKER: I'm sort of skeptical that in the real world it would have an enormous impact.

HSU: Baker's research indicates that when it comes to denying injunctions, it's less about which standard a court uses and more about the court's political leanings. Nevertheless, Sharon Block of Harvard worries that any Supreme Court ruling could ultimately harm union organizing by sending a message.

BLOCK: If the court says that the standard that was used in this case was wrong, the court is going to be sending a very strong signal that judges should bring more scrutiny to these cases.

HSU: She says with employers like Starbucks mounting historically aggressive anti-union campaigns, now is not the time for the Supreme Court to make it harder for federal labor officials to protect workers' rights.

BLOCK: It's like the exact wrong time to make it more difficult.

HSU: Back in Memphis, Florentino Escobar worries about the future of the Starbucks union - so much so that he plans to keep working there part time, even after college, so that he can keep up the fight.

ESCOBAR: Because if I leave, who's going to do it?

HSU: The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case later this spring.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.