Starbucks and NLRB Face Off at Supreme Court Over Workers' Rights

Starbucks and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are set to confront each other at the Supreme Court this Tuesday.

by Faruk Imamovic
Starbucks and NLRB Face Off at Supreme Court Over Workers' Rights
© Getty Images/Spencer Platt

Starbucks and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are set to confront each other at the Supreme Court this Tuesday. This clash is not just about the two entities but encapsulates a broader debate over the powers and even the existence of the NLRB as challenged by major employers nationwide. The outcome of this case could have sweeping implications for labor relations and workers' rights across the United States.

The NLRB, under the labor-oriented Biden administration, has seen a noticeable uptick in union organizing and strike activities, triggering complaints from prominent companies. These companies allege that the agency is overstepping its bounds by excessively supporting unions, thereby complicating the business environment.

At the heart of Tuesday's Supreme Court case is the agency’s authority to mandate the immediate rehiring of employees who, it determines, were unjustly terminated due to union activities. This authority is being contested with the example of the "Memphis 7" — seven Starbucks employees fired from a Memphis store in 2022 for their union organizing efforts, who have since become symbols for labor advocates nationwide.

Legal Strategies and Corporate Claims

Starbucks contends that the NLRB’s actions are inconsistently applied across different jurisdictions, arguing that certain federal courts, including those reviewing the Memphis 7 case, have adopted a more lenient standard that compels employers to take premature corrective actions. In response, Starbucks felt compelled to challenge the NLRB’s requests for injunctions, stating its obligation to uphold fairness not only within its operations but for all employers nationwide dealing with similar agency demands.

Conversely, the NLRB maintains that swift judicial intervention is essential to effectively shield workers from wrongful terminations related to union activities. Jennifer Abruzzo, the NLRB's General Counsel, emphasized the critical nature of injunctive relief in enforcing federal labor laws and protecting workers' rights, arguing that without such measures, violators would benefit from their unlawful actions by undermining union organizing efforts.

Over 350,000 Jobs Added In January, As U.S. Labor Market Remains Strong
Over 350,000 Jobs Added In January, As U.S. Labor Market Remains Strong© Getty Images/Spencer Platt

The High Court’s Scrutiny

During the proceedings, the justices of the Supreme Court posed challenging questions to both parties, reflecting their scrutiny of the arguments presented. Notably, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson highlighted the rarity of the NLRB’s requests for injunctions, questioning the portrayal of the board as overreaching. Meanwhile, both conservative and liberal justices queried why labor disputes should be treated differently from other types of legal controversies.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett pointed out the role of district courts as independent checks, suggesting that they should operate as usual without any special deference to the NLRB. This sentiment was echoed by Justice Elena Kagan and further supported by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who compared the NLRB’s situation to other federal agencies, questioning the need for a unique approach in labor cases.

In a lighter moment, Chief Justice John Roberts humorously suggested that both parties might agree to a concise resolution, which lightened the courtroom atmosphere momentarily.

The broader context of this case includes ongoing challenges to the NLRB's very constitutionality, with other companies like SpaceX and Amazon raising similar issues. The debate extends beyond the courtroom, touching on historical precedents and the current political climate, which may influence the Supreme Court's decisions regarding labor laws and workers' rights.

The Historical Context and Current Challenges

The NLRB was established in 1935 as part of the New Deal, a series of programs and reforms in response to the Great Depression, aimed at improving workers' rights and encouraging fair labor practices. Since then, it has played a crucial role in mediating labor disputes and enforcing labor laws. However, the current legal challenges reflect a broader trend where significant employers, emboldened by a more conservative judicial landscape, are questioning the extent of the NLRB's authority.

Cathy Creighton, a former NLRB attorney and a current union lawyer, expressed concerns about the implications of the Supreme Court’s potential rulings. She highlighted the historical precedent upholding the constitutionality of the NLRB but noted the current court's tendency to depart from past decisions, particularly in labor-related cases. This shift could potentially weaken the NLRB’s mandate, affecting its ability to protect workers effectively.

The Impact of a Ruling Against the NLRB

A Supreme Court decision curtailing the NLRB’s power could lead to significant changes in how labor laws are enforced in the United States. Employers might feel emboldened to challenge union activities more aggressively if they perceive the risk of legal repercussions to be diminished. Conversely, unions and labor advocates worry that such a decision could undermine ongoing efforts to improve working conditions and wage standards, particularly in industries where unionization is gaining momentum.

The potential weakening of the NLRB’s enforcement capabilities is of particular concern in cases like the Memphis 7, where immediate and effective remedies for wrongful termination are crucial. Without the ability to enforce quick reinstatements, the NLRB’s role in deterring unfair labor practices could be substantially weakened, affecting workers’ ability to organize and advocate for better conditions.