Lately, I’ve been thinking and reading and talking about power. As you know, along with policy and poverty, we explore power at MLK50 and so I want to understand it better; the way it works, the way it’s used, the mechanics of it.
Often, as I talk through stories with our reporters, we quickly identify those wielding power or those who yearn to wield it. Other times, it’s not that naked but, instead, like a soundtrack animating a situation, invisible but nonetheless urgent.
I’m following, too, recent displays of power by workers, although I think a better word for what I’ve observed may be “empowerment.”
I’m thinking of the collective actions that have been happening. Although union membership is at a historic low, public approval of unions is at its highest point in more than 50 years. That energy was among the factors that imbued recent actions at places such Kellogg’s.
Now we’re watching the drive for unionization at Starbucks, a story both national and local, rippling across the locations of a ubiquitous brand with a progressive reputation. Our visuals director Andrea Morales, who so vividly captured images of Kellogg’s workers, is now directing a visual presentation of what’s going on with the Starbucks at Poplar and Highland avenues.
Andrea has been watching this story develop since six of the workers (or “partners” as Starbucks calls them) in Memphis put out their letter and launched their union campaign, while invoking Dr. King’s name on MLK Day in January.
“Despite seeing the success of the workers at the now successfully unionized Buffalo stores, it was clear that this effort would require a certain resilience and collaboration connection because unionization in Memphis has a fraught and important history,” she said.
That’s why Andrea sent Lucy Garrett, one of our regular freelance photographers, out to spend time with the workers on the strike line to see that connection and their momentum build. As Lucy made her images, workers involved in the efforts were terminated by Starbucks on Feb. 8. Looking at Lucy’s images, we noticed something: a lot of smiling. That shifted our storytelling a bit.
“We asked them, a group of mostly young folks now being cited as a catalyst for solidarity for Starbucks workers across the nation, what brings them joy in the face of a hard fight,” Andrea said.
You’ll see the results of Lucy’s efforts soon.
The workers aren’t seeking power; they’re using the only power they have — unity — as leverage to gain what they’d call fair treatment. The power dynamic shouts David and Goliath. Yet in reading about the beginnings of this effort, which launched in Buffalo, what jumps out is how the workers see their collective action as benefiting the company as much as it benefits themselves. It’s the part of power that’s more about change than possession. Perhaps that’s why the Memphis workers are able to find joy as they fight.
I’m the daughter of a union worker — an educator — but I’m not blind to the harm that unions can do. Police unions, for instance, have been obstacles to necessary reform. But I’m inspired by and invested in collective action, as was MLK50’s namesake.
I’ll continue to think through power and its facets, but I already believe that shared power offers the best path to a more equitable community.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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