How the Starbucks case at the Supreme Court could affect unions everywhere

by Andrea Hsu

National Public Radio

The Starbucks case is more a battle over which approach Appeals courts should use when they consider requests for injunctions like this one over labor violations. The Supreme Court appears to be weighing in on their decisions. The impact of the Supreme Court decision will weigh heavily on unions and labor.

Five Appeals court use a two-prong test:

– Is there “reasonable cause” to believe an unfair labor practice has occurred, and

– Determine whether granting an injunction would be “just and proper.”

This to determine whether there is a foundation for the complaints by the seven Starbucks baristas.

Four other Appeals Courts use a four-prong test;

– Is the unfair labor practice case is likely to succeed on the merits in establishing labor violations occurred,

– Will the workers the NLRB is attempting to protect face irreparable harm without an injunction,

– Do those factors (above) outweigh hardships an employer is likely to face due to compliance with the court’s order, and

– Does issuing the injunction serve the public interest?

Other Appeals Courts use a hybrid of the two methods.


So right there, I see an avenue to which SCOTUS can enter into this fray and decide the methodology and rule on whether Starbuck has been harmed or the baristas. I suspect the former test will win as SCOTUS leans heavily to the right with its gaggle of six right-leaning justices.

The reasoning for their intervention? Whenever courts disagree, SCOTUS takes up the opportunity to intervene. With Starbucks filing to SCOTUS after losing in the lower courts, they will decide. The feeling is it will intervene.

Besides being ruled against in the lower courts and labor ignoring Starbucks rules, the court will decide (for sure) what process applies and whether labor can be fired for job policy violations after organizing as a union. The latter is probably the most important as it opens up a new door for corporations to take action for reasons after labor decides to organize. Can labor protest on company property for example?

Typically, the two and four prong standard is the opening to an investigation by the NLRB. It keeps the employees employed while it investigates. And that is Starbucks main beef if I am guessing correctly. However, the court can decide the employees can be fired and they then have an option to sue.

Harvard Law School professor and former NLRB board member Sharon Block:

“If the court says the two-prong standard 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.”

With employers like Starbucks mounting historically aggressive anti-union campaigns, Block says it’s the exact wrong time for the Supreme Court to be making it more difficult for federal labor officials to protect workers’ rights.

Watching from Memphis

In Memphis, Florentino Escobar will be following Tuesday’s arguments at the Supreme Court.

“His biggest fear? The Supreme Court making it harder for labor unions across the nation to follow in our footsteps.”

Meanwhile, there has been some movement in the labor board’s investigation of the Memphis Starbucks 7 case. More than a year after the original incident, in May 2023 an NLRB administrative law judge ruled Starbucks did indeed violate the law when it terminated five of the seven workers. This ruling includes Escobar, but not the other two.

As part of the NLRB process, the ruling is now awaiting review by a panel of board members, who could uphold it or modify it. Until the review happens, the injunction remains in place. Today, five of the Memphis 7 still work for Starbucks, including one of the employees whose firing was deemed justified by the NLRB judge.

“Supreme Court appears open to Starbucks’ claims in labor-organizing case,” the conversation, Joel Abrams