Nabretta Hardin (from left), LaKota McGlawn, and Beto Sanchez, some of the members of the Memphis Seven, stand for a portrait at Steve Mulroy’s campaign headquarters where they watched the results of their union votes arrive. Photo by Brittany Brown for MLK50

In a historic vote Tuesday, Memphis Starbucks workers at the Poplar and Highland location voted 11-3 in favor of unionizing. This is the first Starbucks in the city and one of more than 120 Starbucks across the U.S. to unionize, organizers said.

Workers at the store in East Memphis began talks of unionizing in December 2021 and formally launched their campaign on Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  Seven involved in organizing efforts were fired for alleged policy violations; the workers believe it was retaliation.

The fired workers are still waiting to find out if they’ll be granted compensation for damages, back pay and immediate reinstatement of their jobs. A hearing is scheduled in federal court later this week.

“We love our jobs, and it sucks that corporations have to get in the way,” Beto Sanchez, one of the Memphis Seven, told MLK50.

The Poplar-Highland Starbucks is near the University of Memphis and employs mostly college students, the Memphis Seven said. Since being fired, some of the Memphis Seven said they’ve had difficulty finding new jobs in the city and securing assistance, like unemployment benefits and food stamps.

Members of the Memphis Seven, including (from left to right) Kylie Thockmorton, LaKota McGlawn, Beto Sanchez, Florentino Escobar and Emma Worrell, marched with the Poor People’s Campaign during its stop in Memphis last month. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

“They have hindered me from being able to pay for school. I just now got a job. I’ve been hopping places to make ends meet,” said Nabretta Hardin, a University of Memphis student.

When asked why they continued these grassroots efforts, the Memphis Seven agreed that the cause is bigger than just their own struggle: “The question isn’t ‘Why stay?’ Why don’t you want your workplace to be better,” LaKota McGlawn asked.

Said Sanchez: “It takes a level of selflessness to fight for ourselves and workers everywhere. We struggle for the same things and suffer the same exploitation.”

Hardin see her union organizing as continuing the work of her grandfather, who participated in Mississippi marches and sit-ins during the civil rights movement. “I feel like I owe it to my generation, my community, my race, just like my grandfather fought for me to have these rights today,” she said. “We’re bargaining to make sure we’re taken care of –  just like we take care of Starbucks.” 

Brittany Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at brittany.brown@mlk50.com


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