A former Starbucks employee holds a sign on a picket line outside of the coffee shop in Memphis
Nabretta Hardin walks the picket line outside of the Starbucks on Poplar and Highland on January 31. Hardin helped launch a unionization campaign with her coworkers at the location on January 17, but was later  fired along with those coworkers on February 8 for what the company says  were protocol infractions. Photo by Lucy Garrett for MLK50

The 20-yard stretch of sidewalk in front of the Starbucks coffee shop on Poplar Avenue near Highland Street is a site of resistance. On Friday, chants carried through a bullhorn competed with the sounds of six lanes of afternoon traffic.

“What’s disgusting? Union busting! Memphis 7: Reinstate them!”

Cheers from folks on the sidewalk punctuated honks of support from passing drivers. The bullhorn changed hands as snacks were passed around and workers finishing their shift at the coffee shop arrived. 

Staff at the store have demonstrated regularly since formally launching a pointed unionization campaign on January 17, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. They published a statement, riding the momentum from a successful effort by two Buffalo locations to join Starbucks Workers United and calling, in Dr. King’s memory, for the company to not bring its anti-union campaign to Memphis. 

Ten days later, the six workers on the original statement released another letter, this one addressed directly to CEO Kevin Johnson, outlining reasons why unionizing was important, particularly in Memphis. 

“We are forming a union to bring out the best in all of us,” the letter said. 

Nikki Taylor, 32, a former shift supervisor at the Memphis store and a signatory on the letters, echoed that idea in early conversations with her coworkers about unionization. Starbucks — which refers to its workers as “partners”— has long been regarded as a good place to work because of its benefits plans, but the pandemic’s effects brought a different stress on working conditions. Taylor described erratic scheduling, difficult relationships with management and the relentless worry of exposure to COVID-19. 

She considered leaving the job until she started hearing about unionization efforts. “It went from being ‘oh let me quit and find a better job’ to ‘let me make this job better,’” Taylor said. 

Taylor also described a dynamic with her coworkers that resembled a family, with her maternal instincts positioning her as the mother. As one of the senior employees at her store, she took that role seriously.  She laid out for everyone what was at stake in taking this kind of action, including possibly losing employment, as a way to prepare for the fight ahead. Starbucks has worked hard to stop unionization across the country. 

“I knew it was a risk,” Taylor said. “I knew that there was going to be pushback and that I might lose my job. But I want a union not for myself, but for everyone I work with.”

On February 8, Starbucks fired seven employees from the Poplar and Highland location for what the company said were protocol violations, following an interview with local media early in their unionization campaign. All the workers fired had good employment histories with the company and no prior disciplinary records, but were directly involved with the campaign, leading them to believe the dismissals were retaliatory.

At 18, Florentino Escobar is the youngest of the so-called Memphis 7 workers. He worked for Starbucks for two years; seven of those months were at the Poplar and Highland store. 

“I was asked like ‘you’re 18 after all, why don’t you just quit and look for another job?’ or ‘why don’t you just leave it and let the next person deal with it?’” Escobar said. “And that’s the thing. I don’t want the next person dealing with it because if I don’t do something about it myself then who will? I don’t also want the risk to become greater by leaving it for the next person and just let this keep on going. And I was like, “I need to stand up for myself and for my partners and who I call family now.”  

Beto Hernandez, another shift supervisor at the location in favor of the union and considered the uncle in the family, described determination inspired by the city’s profound and fraught history with unionizing for worker dignity. He cited the recent Kellogg’s strike and the 1968 sanitation worker strike

 “We have people whose grandparents were walking along the same protest with Martin Luther King himself,” Hernandez said. “If anything, we’re just picking up where they left off.”

In the 1960s, James Rufus Miller marched and participated in the civil rights movements in his home state of Mississippi. Today, his 23-year-old granddaughter, Nabretta Hardin, one of the Starbucks workers that was fired, is a staple on the Poplar Avenue strike line. 

“It brings me so much joy seeing them fighting so hard for us, giving and offering resources, offering help, offering counseling, offering meeting spaces, bringing out water, little things like that,” Hardin said, while at a nearly 12-hour long strike line event last week. “Definitely gets me through every day, knowing that my community has my back.”

A man speaks into the microphone of a PA system.
February 18, 2022: “I’ve learned that whenever people realize the power they have in numbers, you can move mountains,” Beto Hernandez, former shift supervisor at Starbucks, said. “ A lot of people forget that there’s always going to be more of us. All those corporate suits, we outnumber them a hundred to one. That power has a lot of significance.” Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50
Two women hug while standing on a Starbucks picket line.

“[Unionizing] means having a voice where you didn’t have before.” Nikki Taylor (right, hugging Florentino Escobar) said. “Making decisions to make work life easier. Asking ourselves if we can do things this way.” Photo by Lucy Garrett for MLK50

Cars drive past a Starbucks where people are picketing.

Workers and allies line up along Poplar Avenue on January 27. Local labor organizations such as  Memphis Restaurant Workers United, the Memphis-West Tennessee Labor Council and the Teamsters have attended strike line events in support. Photo by Lucy Garrett for MLK50. 

Organizing work is hard work. For these workers at the moment, it is also unpaid work. Memphis 7 workers left to right: LaKota McGlawn; Beto Hernandez; Nikki Taylor. Photos by Lucy Garrett and Andrea Morales for MLK50

Two people hold signs while picketing in front of a Starbucks in Memphis.
“They definitely messed with the wrong store,” Beto Hernandez (left) said, as he stood  on the strike line earlier this month. “Their scare tactics have solidified our stance. It puts us even stronger together.” Photo by Lucy Garrett for MLK50
Two women take a selfie while standing on a picket line in front of a Starbucks in Memphis
“We’re definitely learning from our older peers of how they did things. We’re kind of taking some notes. We’re kind of modernizing them a little bit,” Nabretta Hardin (center), 23, said. “We kind of have a lot more ways to reach out to people, especially with social media and things like that and Zoom calls. So we’re able to make those connections nationwide and worldwide.” Photo by Lucy Garrett for MLK50
Three people wave while standing on a picket line in front of a Starbucks in Memphis.
 Beto Hernandez and LaKota McGlawn chant while on the strike line together. Both were fired by Starbucks earlier in the month in the middle of a unionization effort. Since they filed for unionization in January, workers said they saw the company start a hiring drive and bring in new workers to the store before they were fired. 
A cardboard sign lays on the grass. The sign reads "Caution: Hot Solidarity Is Brewing" with a drawing of a coffee pot.
“It doesn’t feel like work,” Florentino Escobar, 18, said. “I’m here making the best of it and sticking up for my fellow family and for everybody else out there that is now standing up and letting their voices be heard, too.  I was happy to take that risk to make a change. And so far, I have a vision of the future that we will. I know that I’m going to put up the best fight ever.” Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Andrea Morales is the visuals director for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at  andrea.morales@mlk50.com

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