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The Supreme Court's ruling in favor of Starbucks could impact unions everywhere


Starbucks scored a big win at the U.S. Supreme Court this week. The case originated with a group of baristas who wanted to unionize. But the ruling could make labor organizing harder for workers beyond Starbucks. Let's bring in NPR's labor correspondent Andrea Hsu. Hey, Andrea.


KURTZLEBEN: So let's start with the backstory. How did this case end up at the Supreme Court?

HSU: Well, it dates back a couple of years to when some Starbucks workers in Memphis were organizing a union. One night early in the campaign, they brought a TV crew into the store after hours for interviews. And a few weeks later, Starbucks fired the workers, saying they had violated company policy for letting these journalists in. The workers, though, saw it differently. They said Starbucks is retaliating against us for trying to organize a union. So they filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. That's the federal agency that oversees labor organizing. The Labor Board then went to federal court and asked for an injunction.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. So how did that injunction play out?

HSU: Injunctions are court orders that parties can seek to stop behavior that might turn out to be illegal. In this case, the labor board wanted this federal court to order Starbucks to stop interfering with this union campaign and to give the workers their jobs back while the labor board investigated their firings.

KURTZLEBEN: So did the court do that?

HSU: Yeah. The court did grant the injunction and ordered Starbucks to reinstate the workers. Now, Starbucks was not happy about this at all, and they appealed that decision all the way to the Supreme Court. And, Danielle, here's where the case gets kind of technical. Starbucks argued that the lower court wasn't rigorous enough when considering this injunction request. It turns out courts are split on how much the labor board has to prove in these cases. Some courts require less evidence.

HSU: Now, Starbucks argued that all the courts should be using the same rigorous standard in deciding whether to grant an injunction and eight of the nine Supreme Court justices agreed with that.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. So this case is about Starbucks, but what does this decision mean for all workers? What are the repercussions?

HSU: Well, it's a little hard to say for sure. If you look at what the labor board has said in the past, you might think there could be very little impact. The board pointed out that their win rate for injunctions is largely the same across courts. But labor advocates are very concerned that this ruling will make it harder for labor officials to protect workers' rights.

Consider a scenario like what happened in Memphis. A company fires workers who are leading a union campaign. If the labor board can't get an injunction, that campaign may just die before labor officials have a chance to investigate whether the firings were justified or not. I talked with Sharon Block about this. She's a law professor at Harvard. She's worried about the message the Supreme Court ruling sends to lower courts.

SHARON BLOCK: The signal from the court is, you should be more skeptical.

HSU: More skeptical of labor board requests in these sorts of disputes, and that could have a chilling effect. But I will say Sharon Block is also very concerned about something bigger than this one ruling, and that is the presidential election this fall.

KURTZLEBEN: OK. Why is she concerned about the presidential election?

HSU: Well, one of the reasons this case even made it to the Supreme Court is because under the Biden administration, the National Labor Relations Board has been very proactive, some say overly aggressive, in going after companies like Starbucks that it believes are violating workers' rights. That would change dramatically if former President Trump is reelected. A labor board with Trump appointees may not even pursue injunctions in these types of labor cases. Sharon Block told me as significant as she thinks the Supreme Court ruling is, she says it pales in comparison to the danger to workers' rights that she would expect to see in a second Trump administration.

KURTZLEBEN: That's NPR's Andrea Hsu. Andrea, thanks so much.

HSU: You're welcome. 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.
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.