What you need to know about Starbucks’ complaint against Workers’ United

Cecilia Faringer-Perez

On April 20, Starbucks filed an unfair labor practice complaint against Workers United seeking immediate injunctive relief under § 10(j) of the National Labor Relations Act. Starbucks claims that the union illegally coerced and restrained employees in the exercise of their § 7 rights, thereby violating section § 8(a) of the NLRA.

The alleged unlawful conduct includes blocking ingress and egress at a Starbucks location in downtown Denver; threatening, bullying, and physically intimidating unsympathetic employees and customers who crossed picket lines; “and/or” impacting cars with objects such as picket signs as they attempted to enter and leave the store property. The NLRB General Council must approve Starbuck’s request before it can be reviewed by a federal district judge. 

In contrast to Colorodo’s relatively low bar for intervening in strikes, federal courts have limited injunctive authority in labor disputes. Under federal law, courts are prohibited from enjoining the following (among others): (i) striking or refusing to work in protest; (ii) becoming a union member; (iii) paying or withholding unemployment benefits, insurance, money, or things of value to a person participating in a labor dispute; (iv) providing legal assistance to those involved in a labor dispute; (v) picketing or other public displays of support for or opposition to labor practice; (vi) peacefully assembling in public or private; and (vii) agreeing to or urging others to engage in or refrain from any of these activities. See 29 U.S.C. § 104.

However, a strike may be illegal if it is staged for unlawful purposes, employs illegal tactics, or if it violates a no-strike agreement or a specific statute prohibiting lockouts in essential industries such as healthcare.

When an employer seeks injunctive relief in federal court prohibiting illegal labor activity, it must show why the conduct at issue should be enjoined. A court can issue an injunction only where it finds: (i) the unlawful acts will continue unless restrained; (ii) substantial and irreparable injury will occur if the action is not enjoined; (iii) the balance of hardships between the parties favors the injunction; (iv) there is no adequate remedy at law; and (v) public officers are unable to furnish adequate protection to protect complainant’s property. See 29 U.S.C. § 107. 

Because states have a vested interest in public welfare, they can use police power to enjoin specific illegal strike activity without enjoining the strike itself. In 2021, a Colorodo judge placed certain restrictions on striking King Scoop grocery store employees, including (among others) a limit of ten demonstrators picketing at any given time and a prohibition against yelling within a twenty-foot radius of managers, other employees, or uninvolved passerbys.

Starbucks’ decision to seek injunctive relief from a federal judge by filing an unfair labor practices complaint with the NLRB, rather than opting for less rigid standard under state law that would allow for relief from illegal strike activities but likely not an injunction against the strike itself, signals the degree of mounting tensions between the coffee company and its employees.

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