Buffalo Starbucks workers say the company illegally fired them. Will a conservative federal judge agree?

A pending labor case in Western New York could tip the scales for the Starbucks union after a recent victory in Tennessee.

The Starbucks Workers United hub in Buffalo on November 16, 2021.

The Starbucks Workers United hub in Buffalo on November 16, 2021. Photo by Libby March for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The future of the U.S. labor movement is set to play out in a Western New York courtroom.

Union advocates alleged that seven Western New York Starbucks baristas were fired in retaliation for organizing. They also alleged union-busting practices across 18 Starbucks locations, including surveillance and threats. In June, the National Labor Relations Board filed a petition for a federal injunction that would reinstate fired workers and send a message that the union is here to stay. 

A successful injunction would make Buffalo the second local Starbucks union campaign to receive a federal court victory. A federal judge in Tennessee just became the first to order Starbucks to reinstate a group of fired workers at a Memphis location in mid-August. The company was also ordered to stop meddling in other ways, such as by discarding pro-union flyers.

That landmark win for the union in Tennessee set up the NLRB’s Buffalo case currently making its way through courts. But the Buffalo case will test a much more extensive set of allegations – and it’s being heard by a more conservative judge.

In reaction to the wave of Starbucks unionization, NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo has pushed for regional offices to “aggressively seek” injunctions in cases like those against Starbucks, where an employer is being accused of undermining active union campaigns. In the normal course of an NLRB investigation, the agency can take anywhere from one to two years to reach a final decision on a labor case – especially one as expansive as the one against Starbucks in the Buffalo region. A federal injunction would fast-track enforcement within the span of several months. (Separately, New York City is also getting involved in the cause, suing Starbucks for allegedly firing a union organizer in Queens.)

Replicating Tennessee’s success in New York

The Buffalo district court case will be the third NLRB attempt to score an injunction against Starbucks. The Arizona branch of the agency lost its first bid for an injunction before the victory in Memphis. The Tennessee injunction was a major boost, according to Michael Dolce, a partner at the law firm representing the Buffalo workers.

“The thorough and well-reasoned order from the Western District of Tennessee should be a sign of things to come. We expect district courts across the country who are examining similar fact patterns to follow in its footsteps, including up in Buffalo," Dolce said.

The union said the Memphis decision validated reports that Starbucks stores across the country have intimidated and in multiple cases terminated workers involved in the organizing campaign.

“Starbucks has repeatedly denied firing the Memphis workers for their organizing activity, and this decision … set the record straight. We will continue holding Starbucks accountable for their vicious and unethical union-busting campaign,” the Starbucks Workers Union wrote in a statement.

In response, Starbucks’ corporate leadership continued to maintain that the workers in Memphis were let go for violating company policies. In Buffalo, the company has thus far launched a similar defense.

According to a statement on the Starbucks website, the company plans to appeal the Tennessee decision and request a stay of the injunction, potentially delaying the rehiring of fired workers.

The Memphis decision upheld a broad cease-and-desist order against labor violations at all Starbucks stores. In the Memphis case, the labor violations included interfering with a sit-in campaign, a retaliatory writeup and the removal of fliers from the community bulletin board, but the main consideration involved Starbucks firing the majority of one store's bargaining unit after several workers invited a news crew into the store after hours to cover the nascent union drive.

In Buffalo, the complaint issued by the NLRB is much more extensive. It extends to 18 stores and hundreds of impacted workers. Like in Memphis, the NLRB is seeking a cease-and-desist order as part of its injunction, but the range of labor violations involved in the NLRB’s New York complaint includes surveillance, interrogation, store closures, threats and promise of benefits to nonunionized stores, among other offenses.

Potential enforcement of cease-and-desist orders raises new legal challenges for Starbucks that a court order in Buffalo would expand on. If the injunction is ordered, future violations like those listed in the case could allow the union lawyers to charge Starbucks with contempt of a federal court at other Starbucks stores.

In New York, penalties for civil contempt can be strong. The rulings could lead to monetary penalties and in some cases imprisonment.

While the union celebrated the Memphis injunction as a landmark win, there were several parts of the injunction that the judge denied.

For instance, the NLRB general counsel asked the judge to order a remedy forcing Starbucks to read aloud the court's order and share it through an online system called Partner Hub, but the judge declined the request, saying that it went beyond the scope of a remedy for the Memphis workers impacted by the labor violations at that one store.

Summer squabbling, injunction on deck

The union was hoping to begin court proceedings on the Buffalo injunction earlier this summer, but the federal judge in charge put the case on hold because it would overlap with the first step of the NLRB’s internal hearing process over the Buffalo Starbucks case, in which an administrative law judge hears the case and issues a ruling to be handed up to the executive board.

For the past two months that administrative hearing resulted in Starbucks attorneys from employer-side labor law firm Littler Mendelson locking horns with NLRB prosecutors in a long series of dueling motions.

A major consequence for the injunction case came in July, when Administrative Law Judge Michael Rosas ruled that swathes of evidence unearthed in the hearing will be transferable to the district court hearings as well. The NLRB’s general counsel demanded sanctions over Starbucks’ “glacial production pace” of providing subpoenaed mountains of internal documents that Starbucks reportedly anticipated numbering in the millions.

Littler Mendelson's attorneys have responded by making motions against the judge himself, calling his order to turn over evidence to the district court case ”wholly improper” and demanding he reverse course.

Since the initial sparring, sources familiar with the matter say that Starbucks has turned over tens of thousands of pages in evidence and the pace of witness interviews has picked up.

Though the NLRB’s administrative judge has ruled favorably so far for the union, the outlook may not be so sympathetic in federal court.

The federal judge who will be overseeing the case in the Western District of New York is John L. Sinatra, Jr. He’s a Trump appointee, and a host of Senate Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, voted against installing him in 2019.

Sinatra made headlines last summer when he ruled to place Byron Brown on the ballot in the general election for mayor of Buffalo after Brown lost the Democratic primary to Democratic Socialist India Walton and missed the deadline to get on the ballot with a different party by several months (The court decision was reversed in appellate court, and Byron ended up winning the election with a write-in campaign).

Prior to becoming a judge, Sinatra led a prestigious legal career, working as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Commerce under George W. Bush before joining a private firm. There, one of his focuses involved representing parties on both sides of the​​ False Claims Act, a federal law that is typically used to prosecute federal contractors who defraud government programs.

The administrative case wrapped up on Aug. 29 giving both Starbucks and NLRB lawyers the opportunity to file a status report based on where the case stands. Judge Sinatra will decide whether to recommence the discovery process in district court and set a new court schedule for the injunction case.