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Supreme Court rules against fired pro-union Starbucks workers

The Supreme Court Associated Press/Photo by Mark Schiefelbein

Supreme Court rules against fired pro-union Starbucks workers

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a federal court improperly granted a preliminary injunction to reinstate several employees who were fired after they invited a news crew onto store property for a union-related news story. The high court determined that the injunction did not meet the established four-question test traditionally used to determine if injunctive relief is necessary.

What are the four questions of this standard? The four questions originated in the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. Federal courts must consider:

  • Whether the party seeking the preliminary injunction is likely to succeed at trial;

  • Whether that party will suffer irreparable harm if they don’t receive an injunction before going to trial;

  • Whether the balance of equities tips in that party's favor—or, essentially, whether granting the injunction would burden the other party more than the absence of an injunction would burden the party requesting the injunction;

  • Whether the preliminary injunction is in the public’s interest.

How did this become an issue before the court? The National Labor Relations Board is authorized to investigate tips it receives that employers are not treating their employees fairly. If the board determines that the tips are legitimate and unfair treatment is taking place, the NLRB brings charges against the employer, which are tried internally within the agency. Federal appeals courts can then review the NLRB’s decisions. While trying cases within itself, the NLRB can seek preliminary injunctions against employers taking certain actions.

Starbucks workers at a shop in Memphis were among some of the first employees to begin forming a union against the company—the biggest coffee shop chain in the world, according to the court. The workers invited a local news station to cover their union efforts at the store after hours. The chain eventually fired several employees, alleging they violated company policy. The workers appealed to the NLRB. The Board sought a preliminary injunction against Starbucks, ordering the company to reinstate the workers. The district court granted the request, and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.

However, the district court and the Sixth Circuit used a two-pronged review standard to assess whether the preliminary injunction was appropriate. Starbucks appealed, saying that the courts should have used the four-question standard of review the Supreme Court put forward in Winters. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to set the record straight about what standard should be used in reviewing whether preliminary injunctions are appropriate.

What happens now? The Supreme Court ordered that the district court review the preliminary injunction request using the four-question Winters standard.

Dig deeper: Read my report in The Sift about the Supreme Court’s decision today on whether pro-life doctors had standing to challenge the FDA’s approval of the abortion drug mifepristone.

Josh Schumacher

Josh is a breaking news reporter for WORLD. He’s a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College.

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