Bloomberg Law
Feb. 17, 2023, 6:05 PMUpdated: Feb. 17, 2023, 8:17 PM

Starbucks Ordered to Stop Firing Union Activists Nationwide (1)

Robert Iafolla
Robert Iafolla
Senior Legal Reporter
Parker Purifoy
Parker Purifoy

A federal judge in Michigan granted the National Labor Relations Board’s request Friday for a nationwide cease-and-desist order against Starbucks Corp. to prevent the company from firing workers for supporting unionization efforts or otherwise violate their labor law rights.

A court can fine Starbucks for violating the order, a penalty that the board can’t issue for labor law violations.

The ruling marks another win in an effort by the NLRB general counsel’s office to leverage the agency’s ability to seek court intervention to protect Starbucks workers who are attempting to unionize. Courts have now granted two injunction bids against the coffee chain and denied one. Two requests remain pending.

NLRB Detroit Regional Director Elizabeth Kerwin asked for an injunction in November, which included a request that Starbucks reinstate Hannah Whitbeck, a union activist who was fired from an Ann Arbor, Mich., location.

An administrative law judge ruled a month earlier that Starbucks illegally sacked the activist and called for the company to rehire her. Starbucks advised staffers in the NLRB’s Detroit office that it wouldn’t comply with that ruling because the company intended to appeal the decision to the board, Kerwin said in her injunction request.

To grant the injunction, US District Judge Mark Goldsmith had to have reasonable cause to believe Starbucks violated the National Labor Relations Act and determine that the requested relief is appropriate.

‘Just and Proper’ Relief

The NLRB presented sufficient evidence to convince the judge that Starbucks had discriminated against Whitbeck for her union activities, according to the opinion. The company said it had fired Whitbeck for leaving work without finding someone to take her place. But the NLRB argued that Whitbeck hadn’t received a final warning before being fired, which is inconsistent with Starbucks’ policies.

Goldsmith also found that the requested relief was “just and proper,” saying the NLRB’s administrative processes would be rendered “meaningless” without the cease-and-desist order.

Starbucks failed to identify “any cogent reason” why that relief shouldn’t be issued, Goldsmith said.

Starbucks offered the fired activist her job back in January. The company argued that this move satisfied what Kerwin wanted in the unfair labor practice case underlying her injunction bid, thus eliminating the basis for the request for a court order.

But Starbucks’ reinstatement offer is just weeks old, said Goldsmith. The worker would be vulnerable while the case proceeds at the board level without the protection of a court order, the Obama-appointed judge said.

NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo applauded the judge’s ruling.

“The District Court’s ruling confirms that Starbucks continues to violate the law in egregious ways, thus requiring a nationwide cease and desist order,” Abruzzo said in a statement.

A Starbucks spokesperson said in a statement that the company felt the injunction relief was “unwarranted” and that it acted within the law.

“As a result, we will be seeking further review of the court’s opinion and order while the merits of the case are fully adjudicated,” the spokesperson said.

The case is Kerwin v. Starbucks Corp., E.D. Mich., No. 22-cv-12761, 2/9/23.

(Updated with additional reporting throughout. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Iafolla in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Laura D. Francis at;Rebekah Mintzer at