Federal Judge Bans Starbucks From Firing Union Supporters

A federal judge in Detroit on Friday ordered Starbucks from firing any employee who engages in union organizing at any of its stores nationwide.

In a 13-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Goldsmith said Starbucks violated Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA) when it fired Hannah Whitbeck, a shift supervisor at a store on Main Street in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and ordered her to be rehired. Section 7 gives employees the right to join a trade union and engage in collective bargaining.

Elizabeth Kerwin, Detroit regional director for the National Labor Relations Board (NRLB), was representing Whitbeck. Kerwin called her the “face of the Michigan campaign” for the Workers United organization’s nationwide push to unionize Starbucks employees. The effort has led to the unionization of more than 275 company-owned Starbucks stores nationwide in a little more than a year.

Starbucks said it fired Whitbeck in April 2022 because of her decision to leave work early on one occasion, which violated the company’s “two-partner” rule by forcing another employee to manage the store alone for about 20-30 minutes.

Workers United then filed a complaint with the NLRB, and an administrative law judge ruled in October that Starbucks fired Whitbeck because she engaged in activities protected by the NLRA. Starbucks appealed the ruling to the NLRB in Washington.

Even though Starbucks offered Whitbeck her job back on Jan. 30 on an interim basis with no loss of seniority, Kerwin argued that without a court order of protection, Whitbeck would be vulnerable to termination while the NLRB is deciding her case.

“The court is persuaded by Kerwin’s assertion that the offer of reinstatement, without the protection of a court order, leaves Whitbeck vulnerable while this action proceeds before the [NLRB],” Goldsmith wrote. “Further, Starbucks’s own case law supports entry of an order for reinstatement even where the employer contends that it had already ‘voluntarily offered reinstatement.’ “

Goldsmith also ruled that Starbucks must post the court’s order at the Ann Arbor location and “convene one or more meetings” there “where the order specifying the relief awarded will be read aloud.”

Starbucks said in a statement the facts of the case didn’t merit such an order, according to The New York Times.

“We feel the extraordinary measure for injunctive relief prior to a full legal review of the matter is unwarranted and maintain that actions taken were lawful and in alignment with established partner policies,” said the company, which plans to appeal.