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Supreme Court sides with Starbucks in case over fired union organizers — and other labor news

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Supreme Court sides with Starbucks in case over fired union organizers — and other labor news

Jun 14, 2024 | 11:49 am ET
By Max Nesterak
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Supreme Court sides with Starbucks in case over fired union organizers — and other labor news
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A Starbucks store at 5351 Lyndale Ave. in Minneapolis. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Take a seat in the Break Room, our weekly round-up of labor news in Minnesota and beyond. This week: Supreme Court sides with Starbucks; nursing home workers call off strike; problems with the frontline worker pay program; where the Windom workers are now; the loudest union critic of the Twin Cities; and workers at Kim’s to vote on unionizing. 

Supreme Court sides with Starbucks

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Starbucks in its challenge to a federal judge’s order to reinstate seven fired union activists at a Tennessee store.

The ruling means the federal government must meet a higher standard to win timely relief for workers while challenging alleged labor violations, making it harder for President Biden’s assertive National Labor Relations Board to use one of the most powerful tools it has to protect workers’ right to organize.

While the opinion was a loss for the NLRB, it doesn’t pose an existential threat to the agency like the arguments made by SpaceX, Trader Joe’s and Amazon in other active cases: that the board itself is unconstitutional.

The Starbucks case arose after the coffee giant fired seven workers in 2022 for allowing a TV crew in a Memphis store after hours for a news story about their union campaign. The NLRB alleged the firings were illegal retaliation and interfered with workers’ right to organize a union, while Starbucks said the workers violated company policy. The agency asked a judge for a preliminary injunction to reinstate the workers while the case over the firings worked its way through the NLRB’s administrative proceedings, which can sometimes take years.

A federal judge sided with the NLRB, ordering Starbucks to reinstate the workers, and an appeals court upheld the order.

But the Supreme Court decided that the standard used to award that injunctive relief on the side of workers was too lenient, and that the NLRB must meet the four-part standard used broadly in other cases: that a plaintiff “is likely to succeed on the merits, that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief, that the balance of equities tips in his favor, and that an injunction is in the public interest.”

Eight justices signed onto Justice Clarence Thomas’s majority opinion, while Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson concurred overall but dissented on some points.

Starbucks applauded the ruling, writing in a statement, “Consistent federal standards are important in ensuring that employees know their rights and consistent labor practices are upheld no matter where in the country they work and live.”

Starbucks Workers United, which has organized more than 400 stores including nine in Minnesota, lamented the decision and said Starbucks should have dropped the case.

“Working people have so few tools to protect and defend themselves when their employers break the law. That makes today’s ruling by the Supreme Court particularly egregious,” Lynne Fox, president of Workers United, said in a statement. “It underscores how the economy is rigged against working people all the way up to the Supreme Court.”

Starbucks began negotiating with unionized workers on a framework for a first labor contract earlier this year, more than two years after workers unionized a Buffalo store in 2021 and after racking up more than 100 complaints from regional NLRB offices alleging unfair labor practices.

Nursing home workers call off strike

The union representing nearly 200 nursing home workers at Saint Therese in New Hope called off a five-day strike set to begin on Saturday after reaching a tentative deal that locks in $5 per hour raises workers received during the pandemic.

“We are proud that because we stuck together and were willing to strike, we won this tentative agreement,” Kpana Farwenel, a certified nursing assistant and member of the SEIU bargaining team, said in a statement.

The deal brings the average wage floor to $20, with senior certified nursing assistants making up to $25 in base pay. That’s among the highest in the Twin Cities metro, according to SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa, which represents the workers.

Workers at Saint Therese, along with hundreds of workers at 11 other nursing homes in the Twin Cities, walked off the job for 24 hours in March in the largest nursing home strike in recent state history. Since then, the 11 other facilities settled contracts with the two unions representing the workers, SEIU and UFCW.

Saint Therese announced last week it would sell the nursing home to Compass by Aug. 1, prompting the union to call foul since their contract requires at least 90 days notice of a sale.

In a statement, Saint Therese CEO Craig Abbott said he was pleased to come to a resolution that provides “comfort and assurances for our valued staff” during the ownership transition.

All nursing home workers — union and non-union — are on track to receive raises starting in 2026 as part of the first rules approved by Minnesota’s new labor standards board for nursing home workers. The board approved minimum wages, which must still clear some bureaucratic hurdles, of $23.49 per hour on average by 2027.

Frontline worker pay problems

Just 60% of the more than 1 million people who received $487.45 for working frontline jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota clearly deserved the bonuses, according to a state audit released on Tuesday.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor estimates 9% of recipients were not eligible for the payments, while for the rest, the auditors couldn’t independently verify they were eligible nurses, first responders, prison guards, sales clerks, janitors and other workers who couldn’t stay home during the pandemic.

The report faulted the Department of Labor and Industry, which oversaw the program, and the Department of Revenue for not adequately investigating clearly fraudulent applications. The auditors also criticized lawmakers for how they wrote the law, which included requirements that relied on workers to tell the truth and couldn’t be easily verified, like working in person and in close proximity to others.

“Remember, this program was set-up as a zero-sum game with a fixed amount of state funding — $500 million — to be divided equally among all eligible applicants,” Legislative Auditor Judy Randall told the Legislative Audit Commission on Tuesday. “The more applicants who were approved, the less each applicant received.”

DLI Commissioner Nicole Blissenbach pushed back forcefully on the findings, saying they were more of an indictment of legislators than her agency’s staff. She said in a statement that her agency prevented more than $36 million in payments to tens of thousands of applications deemed fraudulent or ineligible.

“The overarching theme of the findings is that the issue is with the program itself, not how it was implemented,” Blissenbach told the Legislative Audit Commission on Tuesday.

What happened to the Windom workers

Supreme Court sides with Starbucks in case over fired union organizers — and other labor news
The HyLife pork processing plant in Windom, Minnesota, shown May 5, 2023, has filed for bankruptcy, leaving H-2B visa workers in limbo. Photo by Madison McVan/Investigate Midwest.

The Star Tribune’s Christopher Vondracek and Elizabeth Flores traveled to the small city in central Mexico where many guest workers returned after the HyLife slaughterhouse in Windom shuttered and laid off all its 1,007 employees.

In a series of stories, Vondracek details how one plant’s closure upended workers’ dreams and sent them scrambling to find work across the United States or returning to a home with fewer economic opportunities and rampant cartel violence.

HyLife recruited workers from Salvatierra to work in its meatpacking plant on H-2B visas, promising over two years of work that paid six times as much as they could earn in Mexico. The work was grueling but hundreds of workers took the opportunity, with plans to build a home, send kids to college and support relatives.

After the plant announced its bankruptcy, government officials tried to find other opportunities for workers. Some ended up at processing plants in Michigan, oil fields in Texas and a dairy farm in Iowa.

The state Department of Labor and Industry is investigating HyLife, alleging the company stole wages from hundreds of visa workers.

Minneapolis and St. Paul’s loudest union leader critic

The Pioneer Press profiled Jason George, head of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 and outspoken critic of the left-wing elected leaders in St. Paul and Minneapolis. George says the Twin Cities are increasingly run by “a government of paid activists, career political types.”

Trade unions like IUOE, which represents construction mechanics and heavy equipment operators, are predictably among the most conservative labor unions. Their focus is generally on increasing government infrastructure spending to fund high-paying construction jobs, rather than expanding regulations and social safety net programs like public health insurance.

For example, IUOE Local 49 and the carpenters’ union, the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, were staunchly opposed to St. Paul’s rent control ordinance, warning that the policy would stymie construction amid a housing shortage.

“We build things,” said George, in an interview with the Pioneer Press. “That’s what my union does. We knew rent control would have a devastating effect on the city.”

The two unions were part of a campaign last year called “Service St. Paul” to elect city leaders focused on basic services: police, fire, housing and roads. None of their endorsed candidates won, Pioneer Press’s Frederick Melo notes, in what was the latest in a string of political defeats.

Workers at Kim’s restaurant will vote on unionizing

The union campaign at chef Ann Kim’s Uptown Minneapolis restaurant Kim’s is headed to a vote by some 60 workers later this month. Workers, who are organizing with Unite Here Local 17, notified management of their intent to unionize last month and asked Kim to voluntarily recognize their union, the Star Tribune reported.

Kim declined, writing on Instagram, “I wholeheartedly believe we can come together as a Kim’s team without a union.”

Minneapolis Council Member Katie Cashman privately pressured Kim to voluntarily recognize the union in a voicemail, Axios reported.