Before marching in support of unionization with a group of Memphis Starbucks workers Wednesday, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II huddled in the parking lot of Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library with them.
“I’m starstruck,” one worker admitted, as she stood beside the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.
“I’m starstruck,” Barber replied, inspired by the young workers standing up to a large corporation. “How old are y’all?” One worker said she was 27.
“Good Lord,” Barber said with a joyful wince. “In the movement, 27 is old.” He advised the group to never allow anybody to dismiss them for their youth. After all, he said, Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a movement at 27.
The Starbucks workers, including some from Knoxville and Buffalo, New York, shared their experiences of the company’s efforts to disrupt unionization. He offered encouragement.
“You measure your power by the tricks they have to use,” Barber said. “If you weren’t powerful, they’d ignore you.”
After a short TV interview, song and chant, Barber asked a fellow protester, “Can I borrow your arm?” He picked up his cane, locked arms and they moved toward the coffee shop where some used to work.
Last month, Starbucks fired seven employees involved in unionizing efforts from that shop near Poplar Avenue and Highland Street for alleged policy violations; the workers believe it was retaliation.
With their march, the Starbucks workers, new to justice work, locked in both literally and symbolically with activists who came before them. Their fight is the latest, but it’s part of the same legacy of the struggle for worker’s rights that Dr. King and the 1968 Memphis sanitation strikers began, and that Dr. Barber and others work to carry on.
“All of this is new,” said Nabretta Hardin, 23, one of the Memphis employees fired. “I never even knew what a union was really until we started this. So we’re just learning as we go.”
Across the country, Starbucks employees are seeking to unionize to negotiate with company leadership for better working conditions, pay and benefits. Although the multi-billion dollar company has sought to undermine employees’ efforts to organize, a Buffalo store became the first location to unionize earlier this year.
“We saw them win and thought ‘This is obtainable,’” Hardin said. “Even though it’s in the South, we’re strong enough of a store. They can’t separate us. They can’t knock us down.”
Although union membership declined in 2021 — it fell 13.5% in the South — public approval of unions is at its highest point in more than 50 years. Employees at the Memphis location intentionally chose Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day to announce their plan to unionize so they could highlight the unique history of the labor movement in Memphis.
“It’s symbolic because this is where MLK died helping to unionize sanitation workers,” Hardin said. “We are a special place for unions even though the South isn’t seen as a place to unionize. We do believe Memphis is a good place to get that done.”
At Wednesday’s march, a racially diverse crowd of at least 50 trickled in and circled around Barber on the sidewalk.
Allies in the crowd included former Kellogg’s strikers, members of Restaurant Workers United, environmental justice activist Justin J. Pearson, and the Rev. Andre E. Johnson, who led rallies for Pervis Payne, who was recently moved off of death row.
“All these issues are interconnected,” said Pearson, 27, who helped organize marches from the National Civil Rights Museum last year in opposition to a proposed crude oil pipeline through Black Memphis communities. The systems that create economic injustice are connected to the systems that create environmental injustice, he said. “(Those) same systems are the exact same ones that say they can’t unionize, that their livelihoods are less valuable and that the communities where they come from don’t deserve investment.”
Hardin sees her union organizing as continuing the work of her grandfather, who participated in Mississippi marches and sit-ins during the civil rights movement, she said.
“I embody him in that aspect, because I’m marching for my rights that I deserve and respect. In a sense, his (work) was for civil rights, but rights all the same, and we’re standing up,“ Hardin said. “It’s in my blood to do this.”
While employees in Buffalo were able to unionize, earning the same success in Memphis comes with different challenges, Barber said.
“It’s almost as though people want Memphis to be the city of the crucifixion — the death of the Dr. King. What we need is not to be the place of crucifixion. We need a resurrection,” he said.
To Pearson, the Starbucks fight and others like it are a sign of life in the city.
“Dr. King said the movement lives or dies in Memphis,” Pearson said. “A (living) movement is one where you start to see folks fighting for many different issues simultaneously, recognizing that interconnectedness.”
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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