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.”
“[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
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
Andrea Morales is the visuals director for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at email@example.com
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