Starbucks Must Rehabilitate Dismissed Employees Under Federal Court Rules

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — A federal judge orders Starbucks to hire seven Memphis employees who were fired earlier this year after attempting to unify their store.

In a decision issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge Sheryl Lipman agreed with the National Labor Relations Board, which had asked the court in May to intervene. The labor council said Starbucks violated US labor law by interfering with workers’ right to organize.

Lipman’s decision requires Starbucks to offer to reinstate the employees within five days. Starbucks will also be required to place the court order in the Memphis store.

Starbucks said Thursday it strongly disagrees with the court order and will appeal. It will also request that the advice be suspended, which would delay the relocation of the workers while the appeal is being heard.

The case has been one of the most closely watched in the union effort at Starbucks. More than 220 Starbucks stores in the US, including the Memphis store, have voted to unionize since late last year. Starbucks opposes union efforts.

Starbucks fired the seven employees in early February for security reasons. The Seattle coffee giant said its employees violated company policy by reopening an after-hours store and inviting non-employees — including a television crew — to come in and move around the store.

“These individuals have violated numerous policies and failed to maintain a safe work environment and safety standards,” the company said in a statement on Thursday. “Interest in a union does not exempt partners from following policies in place to protect partners, our customers and the communities we serve.”

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But the NLRB and the laid-off workers told the court that Starbucks had routinely tolerated off-duty employees and non-employees staying in the store after hours to make drinks, collect belongings or help each other.

“Such tolerance before union activities, but after terminations, supports an inference of discriminatory motives,” the judge wrote.

The NLRB had initiated administrative proceedings against Starbucks for unlawfully interfering with employees’ right to organize. But those proceedings could take so long that the NLRB asked federal court for an immediate injunction from Starbucks to reinstate the employees.

“Today’s federal court decision ordering Starbucks to reinstate the seven illegally fired Starbucks employees in Memphis is a critical step to ensure that these employees, and all Starbucks employees, can freely exercise their right to work together to improve their working conditions and form a trade union. Labor Council General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo said in a statement. “Starbucks and other employers should note that the NLRB will continue to vigorously protect employees’ right to organize without interference from their employer.”

One of the workers, Beto Sanchez, said he and his colleagues have been in financial difficulties since their resignation and that he has had to hold several jobs. Sanchez said he was so surprised after receiving a text about the favorable ruling that he dropped his phone.

“We had a lot of difficult moments, but we kept fighting every day,” said Sanchez. “It feels like all the hard work in all those months has paid off, and we’re just really happy.”

The NLRB has filed a separate federal lawsuit in New York seeking the reinstatement of seven unionized workers fired from a store in Buffalo. A decision in that case is pending.

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The agency lost a similar case in Arizona in June, when a federal judge refused to order Starbucks to reinstate three employees.


Durbin reported from Detroit.

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