Corporate Accountability

Starbucks Corp. v. McKinney

In Starbucks Corp. v. McKinney, the Supreme Court is considering what standard courts should apply when deciding whether to grant a National Labor Relations Board request for a temporary injunction to halt an alleged unfair labor practice.

Case Summary

In early 2022, the union Workers United filed charges of unfair labor practices against Starbucks Corporation. The charges alleged that Starbucks disciplined and then terminated seven employees who were publicly involved in a union organizing effort at a Memphis store, and also took additional retaliatory actions at the store, including removing union literature from the community bulletin board, increasing managerial oversight of unionizing employees, and closing the store’s café on pretextual grounds. Section 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) allows the National Labor Relations Board (“the Board”) to halt alleged unfair labor practices by petitioning a court for injunctive relief. Following an investigation by the Board, the Board successfully obtained an injunction directing rehiring of the employees involved while the Board further investigates whether Starbucks had engaged in unfair labor practices under the NLRA. The Board eventually concluded that the firing of most of the employees involved had been unlawful.

Starbucks challenged the injunction and argued that the court should have used a test for injunctive relief that would not permit deference to the Board’s findings of fact. The Sixth Circuit rejected Starbucks’s challenge, and the Court granted Starbucks’s request that it hear the case.

CAC filed an amicus brief arguing that Starbucks’s position is contrary to the text and history of the National Labor Relations Act, as well as Supreme Court precedent.  Our brief makes three main points.

First, Congress passed Section 10(j) to give courts the limited power to issue injunctions to aid the Board’s exercise of its authority. From the end of the nineteenth century to the first few decades of the twentieth century, courts issued injunctions against strikes and other labor actions whenever they thought traditional tests made injunctive relief appropriate. In response, Congress became, as the Supreme Court once put it, “intent upon taking the federal courts out of the labor injunction business.” In 1933, the Norris-LaGuardia Act prohibited courts from issuing labor injunctions. In 1935, Congress passed the NLRA, which established substantive rights for covered employees and created the Board to enforce these rights.

In 1947, Congress amended the NLRA and, among other things, passed Section 10(j). It created a limited exception to the prohibition on labor injunctions, allowing courts to grant temporary relief against unfair labor practices if the Board petitioned for such relief. Neither Section 10(j) nor any other provision of the LMRA changed the basic premise of the NLRA, in which the Board had the ultimate authority to enforce labor law, subject to limited review by the courts of appeals.

Thus, the history of federal labor law makes clear that Congress drafted Section 10(j) to confer limited authority on district courts to grant injunctive relief when the Board convinced them that such relief was appropriate.  Section 10(j)’s text reflects this history and requires deferential review

Second, turning to text, Section 10(j)’s use of “just and proper” is consistent with a deferential standard of review. When Section 10(j) was drafted, courts of appeals already had the power to grant “just and proper” relief in existing provisions of federal labor law, and the relief under those provisions was not—and could not have been—assessed under the test that Starbucks invokes in this case. In several other federal laws, as well, Congress used the language “just and proper” to guide the discretion of courts reviewing agency actions, and courts interpreting these provisions took account of statutory context and gave some measure of deference to the agency in question.

Third, Starbucks claims to find support for its rule in several of the Supreme Court’s more recent cases. But none of these cases support Starbucks’s position that equitable relief should be divorced from statutory context—and they certainly do not speak to what the statutory context requires here. Indeed, these cases make clear that courts exercising their equitable authority under a statute can and should consider the statutory context. Further, none of those cases speak to what that consideration entails here, because none of them involved statutory schemes like the NLRA or statutory language like “just and proper.”

The Supreme Court should affirm the Sixth Circuit’s decision upholding the carefully crafted enforcement scheme set forth in the NLRA.

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