US Supreme Court Will Hear Starbucks' Appeal Over Tennessee Firings

On Friday, January 12, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from Starbucks over a high-profile case involving the termination of seven Memphis, Tennessee, employees. The chain claimed that the employees — who were participating in a union organizing drive — were fired for breaching safety policies by allowing journalists into the store after hours. However, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency tasked with enforcing labor laws, determined that they were unlawfully fired for attempting to unionize.

The NLRB first brought the issue to court in 2022, where U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman ordered the chain to rehire the employees. Lipman explained that the NLRB "provides evidence consistent with the theory that Starbucks discriminatorily applied its policies to the Memphis Seven when terminating them," and argued that the company hadn't shown that it enforced the same policies at other locations. In 2023, the Cincinnati, Ohio, Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision.

Since 2021, nearly 300 Starbucks stores nationwide have unionized. Union demands include higher wages, safer working conditions, and consistent schedules. And, although the coffee giant has a reputation for offering stellar benefits, workers have complained that they don't get enough hours to qualify. In the wake of the movement, the company has been repeatedly accused of unlawfully retaliating against union organizers. While this is the first case to reach the Supreme Court, over the last few years, NLRB judges ruled against the company more than 40 times.

Starbucks maintains it's leveling the playing field

Starbucks states that NLRB applies an inconsistent — and in the case of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit case, relaxed — standard. It argues that courts should be held to a more consistent standard when deciding whether to grant NLRB injunctions. When Tasting Table reached out to the company for comment, Starbucks stated: "We are pleased the Supreme Court has decided to consider our request to level the playing field for all U.S. employers by ensuring that a single standard is applied as federal district courts determine whether to grant ... injunctions pursued by the National Labor Relations Board."

A recent report states that Starbucks never intended to engage in union busting. Instead, the report explains that Starbucks officials acted in ignorance rather than malice and suggested that managers needed better training to understand labor laws. While the report was conducted by a third party, it was commissioned by Starbucks at the request of shareholders. In December 2023, Starbucks announced that it would take up union talks again in the new year. The company also promised to raise hourly pay for U.S. workers by 3%.