Supreme Court legitimizes corporate attack on Starbucks workers
Supreme Court police officers stand on duty outside of the Supreme Court building on Thursday, June 13, 2024, in Washington. Inside the building, meanwhile, the Supreme Court justices ruled against the Starbucks workers, siding with the company. | Mark Schiefelbein/AP

WASHINGTON—By an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court curbed the National Labor Relations Board’s toughest tool against labor law-breakers: Getting so-called 10(j) injunctions when traditional punishments aren’t enough to make injured workers whole.

The decision, written by the leader of the court’s Republican-named right-wing, Clarence Thomas, gave Starbucks and the corporate class a victory over workers and the board. The monster coffee chain sued the NLRB over its 10(j) injunction against the firm for firing the “Memphis 7,” seven baristas the company fired for campaigning to unionize their store.

“Working people have so few tools to protect and defend themselves when their employers break the law. That’s makes today’s ruling particularly egregious,” Starbucks Workers United President Lynne Fox replied in a statement posted on twitter/X. “It underscores how the economy is rigged against working people, all the way up to the Supreme Court.” SWU aids the workers’ grass-roots campaign.

Starbucks should have dropped this case the day it committed to chart a new path forward with its workers”—by bargaining with them—“instead of aligning itself with other giant corporations intent on stifling worker organizing (her italics).

“Workers’ momentum is unstoppable and they will not let the Supreme Court slow them down.”

Workers at some 450 stores, which employ more than 10,000 people combined, have voted union. Workers from those stores, with Starbucks Workers United’s professional aid, are now bargaining with Starbucks brass—and its anti-union lawyers–for a first contract.

And workers at 20 more stores want to unionize to benefit both themselves and the company, they just wrote Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan in a joint letter in June which SWU posted.

“As the face of Starbucks, we are dedicated to providing exceptional service to our customers, but we also deserve fair compensation, job security, and a voice in decisions that affect us. We believe forming a union is necessary to address these concerns and improve the working conditions of all Starbucks employees,” their letter says

“We believe a union will not only benefit us as workers but will also strengthen Starbucks as a company by fostering a more collaborative and productive work environment.”

Even under the old rules which the High Court, for all practical purposes, reinstated, SWU won six national injunctions against the coffee company. Those injunctions highlight how Starbucks baristas are a part of the larger movement of underpaid overworked, exploited workers—mostly young, workers of color, women or combination of those characteristics—have had it up to here with corporate greed. Their responses are to unionize, leave for better-paying jobs, or both.

Ruling ignores context

None of that context was in Justice Thomas’s decision, speaking for the court.

“The board argues that statutory context requires district courts evaluating §10(j) petitions to apply the traditional criteria in a less exacting way, consistent with a reasonable-cause standard” the federal appeals court handling the Memphis case set, Thomas wrote for all nine justices.

“But the reasonable-cause standard goes far beyond simply fine-tuning the traditional criteria to the section 10(j) context. It substantively lowers the bar for securing a preliminary injunction by requiring courts to yield to the board’s preliminary view of the facts, law, and equities,” the court’s ruling added.

“There is an obvious difference between having the board show it is ‘likely’ to succeed on the merits and having it show only its theory of the case is ‘substantial and not frivolous,’ without having to convince the court that its theory is likely meritorious.

“In fact, it is hard to imagine how the board could lose…if courts deferentially ask only whether the board offered a minimally plausible legal theory, while ignoring conflicting law or facts,” Thomas wrote.

The practical effect of the court’s ruling is to make it tougher for the labor board to use the injunction, its strongest tool against labor law-breakers. Traditionally, the NLRB seeks such court orders only when its usual remedies for law-breaking aren’t enough to make workers whole.

Those weak remedies order net back pay to harmed workers, order firms to reinstate them and wipe the firings and other discipline off the books and order companies to post a “we-broke-the-law-and-promise-not-to-do-it-again” notice on bulletin boards or have NLRB officials read it, in the bosses’ silent presence, to the workers. But there are no fines—and certainly no jail terms for law-breakers.

For the Memphis 7, those remedies weren’t enough, which is why the NLRB went to court for the injunction. To stop the workers’ grass-roots organizing drive there, aided by Starbucks Workers United, Starbucks not only fired the seven baristas, it closed the café, at least for months.

“Under the traditional standard, for example,” where the NLRB must meet four criteria to seek an injunction, it must show “it is likely to succeed on the merits” of the case, Justice Thomas wrote.

The standard NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo sought says the board only has to show it has “reasonable cause to believe unfair labor practices have occurred,” the justice added. “Section 10(j)’s statutory context does not compel this watered-down approach to equity.”

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson partially dissented. She said her colleagues ignored Congress’s intent, and the practical impact. The National Labor Relations Act does not “strip courts of their discretion…to issue a 10(j) injunction,” she wrote.

“But I cannot join the majority in ignoring choices Congress made about how courts should exercise their discretion in light of the National Labor Relations Board’s authority over labor disputes. Because the majority chooses the simplicity of unfettered judicial discretion over the nuances of Congress’s direction, I respectfully dissent in part.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.