Near a main intersection, less than a mile away from the University of Memphis, the Poplar-Highland Starbucks is one of the city’s busiest.
It’s also an epicenter of a reviving labor movement.
On Jan. 17, 2022 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — a small organizing committee launched a campaign, making it the first Starbucks in Memphis to attempt to unionize.
They didn’t know it yet, but within a year’s time, that group would morph into the Memphis Seven, a collective of young workers unlawfully fired by Starbucks for attempting to unionize the Poplar-Highland coffee shop, the NLRB ruled.
The Memphis Seven — Florentino Escobar, Em Worrell, Nabretta Hardin, Kylie Throckmorton, LaKota McGlawn, Beto Sanchez and Nikki Taylor — would galvanize the Starbucks Workers United movement, strengthening their friendships with one another, building solidarity and catapulting a long-overdue resurgence of the workers’ rights movement, especially among millennials and Gen Zers.
For them, the experience has been life-changing. Working at Starbucks was simply a fun way to make money by doing jobs they loved. But through the process of unionizing with Starbucks Workers United, they began to understand just how much work it would take to be treated fairly as workers by one of the most well-known corporations in the world.
“We knew unionizing would basically force the company to listen to us. They didn’t have a choice,” Hardin, 23, said.
A brewing workers’ rights movement
It’s been a whirlwind of a year for the Memphis Seven, and for Hardin, the past several months of activism have changed her.
“My mom tells me all the time. She’s like, ‘I never would have imagined my quiet, little girl now going everywhere and speaking to thousands of people and standing up for herself and others and for people in the future,’” Hardin said.
She lives at home in Horn Lake, Mississippi, while completing a degree in health science from the University of Memphis. She operates on a tight schedule to juggle it all: school, work and activism.
While sipping coffee at Coffee Central in Southaven, Mississippi, Hardin says she’s amazed at the journey the Seven took: “The things we went through, we all went through them together. That just brought us even closer… Those workers are like my family,” Hardin said.
She’s one of five of the Seven back on the job at Poplar-Highland, after a long fight with Starbucks to be reinstated. Escobar no longer works with Starbucks nor is he a part of the SBWU campaign. Taylor, on the other hand, found a job with a higher wage, more benefits and consistent hours. She remains involved, sitting on the board of the Starbucks Workers Fund, a donation-based solidarity fund.
More than 250 Starbucks across the U.S. are unionized, and that number is climbing. SBWU’s national campaign launched in August 2021, and since then, its exponential growth in such a short amount of time shows how Starbucks baristas helped usher in a long-overdue labor movement, says Ian Hayes, a Buffalo, New York-based labor and employment attorney. Hayes works with the Memphis Seven and SBWU.
“A workers’ movement has been coming in this country for many years because income and wealth inequality have steadily worsened for decades. As each generation comes up, things are getting worse and worse for each group,” Hayes said.
There’s still tension between management and employees at Poplar-Highland, Hardin said, but now it’s easier to organize her coworkers. Other ongoing issues include moldy ice machines, one bathroom with a broken door, low inventory of ingredients and staff with not enough scheduled hours, Hardin said. All of this is why the union is currently in negotiations with Starbucks.
When they began their local campaign last year, the Memphis Seven didn’t realize — or desire — to become the face of what it looks like to fight back against a billion-dollar, multinational, union-busting corporation. It’s just the way the chips fell.
But, as they learned, there may not be a better place than Memphis to revive a workers’ rights movement in the service industry.
Memphis is remembered as where Dr. King made his last stand before he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. King was in the city to support the AFSCME Local 1733 sanitation workers’ strike that started Feb. 11, 1968. After two sanitation workers were crushed to death at the start of the month by a defective garbage truck, tensions boiled over at the city’s lackluster response, sending 1,300 sanitation workers — all Black men — on strike.
Demanding union recognition, better pay and safer conditions on the job, the striking workers, who were calling for economic justice, garnered the support of King and several other civil rights leaders. Even after King’s assassination, the city refused to concede to the strikers’ demands. It wasn’t until the federal government intervened that they reached a deal on April 16, 1968, guaranteeing union recognition and better wages.
The sanitation workers’ struggle, one of solidarity and foresight, was long and brutal. It’s that history the Memphis Seven studied and learned more about in their own unionization process. It pushed them to begin and finish their fight, and it signaled the type of uphill battle they’d have to be willing to endure.
“Memphis is a grind city, and we were going to get it done,” Taylor said.
‘Unionizing? What does that mean?’
Before they became the Memphis Seven, the baristas were just friends and coworkers who blew off steam every Tuesday.
During the fall and winter of 2021, over cheap tacos and rounds of margaritas, a handful of baristas would meet to decompress from the hustle and bustle of the job. The small group gathered almost every week, rotating the Mexican restaurant of choice to break bread.
“We just vented to each other about our work week and school life because a lot of us [were college] students as well,” Hardin said.
The “Taco Tuesday” group, as they called themselves, talked about poor COVID-19 safety protocols, understaffing due to sick workers, equipment in a constant state of disrepair and managers who ignored the workers’ requests for solutions.
After Starbucks Workers United formed its first union Dec. 9, 2021 in Buffalo, New York, Taylor, who had been shift manager for two years, took notice of the national campaign’s effort to unionize all 9,000 of the coffee giant’s storefront U.S. locations.
“Nikki bought it up to us when we went out for tacos one week,” said Hardin. “She was like, ‘Hey, what do you guys think about unionizing?’ We were like, ‘What does that mean?’”
Confirmation from her coworkers was all she needed. By mid-December, Taylor called the first unionized Starbucks store and sent emails to the SBWU headquarters in upstate New York for advice.
“If Buffalo could do it, we could do it. …I have no idea what I’m doing, but our partners here in Memphis deserve better,” Taylor said she remembered thinking.
Soon, the Taco Tuesday group became a full-on organizing committee. They worked with SBWU comrades in Buffalo to lay the groundwork for their unionization efforts. The baristas envisioned a workplace where they felt supported, protected and fairly compensated for their labor, and they were willing to do the hard work necessary to bring that vision to life.
After several phone calls, Zoom meet-ups and back-and-forth emails with Buffalo organizers, the Memphis organizing committee was ready.
“We are here to fight for our safety and our rights as workers that have been denied and shoved away from us,” the baristas wrote in an open letter, intentionally published on the King holiday. “We say to Starbucks, use this day as a moment of reflection against your apathy toward your workers across the United States.”
“[The letter] shows our solidarity. The words came with such flow, and we were in tune with one another,” Taylor said. “We were making history, and I felt nothing could go wrong.”
Becoming the Memphis Seven
The tides swiftly turned.
Starbucks quickly tried to sabotage their effort with an age-old union-busting tactic: pit management against employees.
According to Hardin, Starbucks instructed the manager to either fire the organizing committee — or be fired. Instead, the manager, whom Hardin said had actually begun to support their organizing efforts, quit.
“She left, so we kind of lost that aspect [of support], and we didn’t have a store manager anymore,” Hardin said. “So it was just the workers kind of fending for themselves.”
Starbucks’ efforts didn’t end there.
Just weeks later, in February, Starbucks district managers called in several workers, including most of the union organizing committee, to discuss workplace benefits and resources, management claimed.
Worrell, who uses they/them pronouns, was the first to be called in and terminated. They texted the group chat: “Guess who just got fired?” The rest knew their fate.
Picking them off one by one, management claimed they’d violated workplace protocols. The workers felt blindsided; they knew it was retaliation. Yet, the move only made their solidarity stronger.
“I cried in my car a little bit, but I just hadn’t been fired from a job before at that point. I just felt really confused because I knew I was a good employee,” said Worrell, a junior anthropology major at the University of Memphis. “And I was just kind of stressed out because I had just lost my source of income.”
Out of a small and unassuming collective of young white, Black, Latinx, working-class, queer, millennial, Gen Z workers, the Memphis Seven were born.
“Being fired was the worst and best thing to happen to us,” Taylor said.
The following Tuesday, the seven returned to their same old place for comfort. Over tacos al pastor and margaritas on the rocks, the group organized even more, setting the stage to claim their rightful place in Memphis’ labor legacy.
“They messed with the wrong people,” Taylor said. “All we know is fight.”
After all, they don’t come from a life of privilege.
“We’ve been fighting our entire lives,” Taylor said. “In my mind, I realized I was going to be Starbucks’ biggest nightmare.”
The news about the Memphis Seven’s firing spread quickly, catapulting them into a local and national spotlight, and their firing energized SBWU to continue its national organizing efforts.
The path to reinstatement
After their termination, the Memphis Seven spent more time together than ever. As Hardin put it, “since we were fired, we had all of this time on our hands. For the first month, we were all just hanging out every day because we had nothing else to do.”
They used that time to build community, camaraderie and solidarity — not just with one another, but also with organizers and other fired Starbucks workers from across the United States.
The Memphis Seven inspired even more Starbucks workers to organize. They spent the months after their firing traveling and speaking at different rallies and events all over the country and the world: The Poor People’s Campaign March in Washington, D.C.; South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas; ManiFiesta: The Festival of Solidarity in Ostend, Belgium; and more.
The Memphis Seven: A Timeline
- December 2021: Initial conversations about unionizing began during Taco Tuesday nights.
- Jan. 17, 2022 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Organizing committee announced unionization effort.
- Feb. 8, 2022: Workers fired, becoming the Memphis Seven.
- June 7, 2022: Poplar-Highland Starbucks voted in favor of unionizing.
- Aug. 18, 2022: A federal judge ordered the Memphis Seven to be reinstated to their jobs. Starbucks immediately appealed the court’s decision.
- Sept. 6, 2022: Starbucks’ appeal failed. Workers’ reinstatement confirmed.
- Oct. 22, 2022: Six of Memphis Seven celebrated full return to work as Starbucks baristas
The Memphis Seven’s early action culminated in June when workers at the Poplar-Highland location voted 11-3 in favor of a union, making it the only Starbucks in the city to unionize. In east Tennessee, workers at a Knoxville Starbucks voted 8-7 in favor of a union in March, making it the first successful Starbucks union in Tennessee. Even there, Starbucks tried to question the vote because management participated in the election but failed.
After the successful union vote, the struggle continued. In August, a federal judge ruled that the coffee giant must reinstate the seven fired workers to their original jobs within five days. Despite Starbucks’ failed attempt to appeal and delay their reinstatement, the Memphis Seven were celebrating their full return to work in October at a rally outside the Poplar-Highland coffee shop.
SBWU organizers from as far away as Washington and South Carolina traveled to Memphis to celebrate the win: “The Memphis Seven inspired me to unionize my store in Pittsburgh, [Pennsylvania]…If it was not for you, we would not have been able to see through unionization,” Brett Taborelli said at the rally.
The next generation
In 2021, income inequality rose for the first time in a decade, according to a 2022 Census report. Today, the top 1% earn 20% of America’s income, while the bottom 50% take home just 10% of the country’s income, says one report by Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center. The pandemic only exacerbated long-held inequalities in the labor market, with increased unemployment rates and worsened working conditions for low-wage workers, compared to middle and high-wage workers, between 2020 and 2021.
Between the pandemic and the escalating awareness of all the ways it has deepened inequality in the U.S., “we’re at a crossroads of history right now,” Hayes said, where the labor movement is being revived by Gen Z.
“As a generation, as a group, they just don’t buy into those delusions [of the American dream], and they’re much more willing to think and act collectively, rather than individually, as people my age do and older people do,” Hayes said.
Although their Starbucks location is now unionized, all issues haven’t been resolved. Now, more baristas interested in the labor movement are joining the fight in Memphis.
Sami Blumenthal, a 23-year-old college student majoring in psychology at the University of Memphis, started working as a barista at the Poplar-Highland Starbucks in August after hearing about the Memphis Seven’s reinstatement. A previous Amazon warehouse worker and line cook at Firehouse Subs, Blumenthal chose that Starbucks store because it was close to campus, and he wanted to become an active union member to push for higher wages and better benefits.
In fact, when he was hired, a manager told him the staff would receive a $15 minimum wage very soon, per company policy. Weeks went by, and Blumenthal’s check stubs and take-home pay still reflected a $12 hourly wage. He soon learned that the pay increase plan applied to all corporate-owned stores, except those that had unionized. His girlfriend, who worked at another Starbucks in Memphis, had received the raise.
Blumenthal joined the union and the fight against what he called wage theft at the hands of Starbucks leadership. Although baristas at the Poplar-Highland location are now paid $15 an hour, they’re pushing for back pay and for management to schedule enough baristas to work each shift.
“I had this image [of Starbucks] of having some amount of progressive values,” Blumenthal said. “Now, it’s like, oh my gosh, it’s completely shattered. I have a completely different outlook on this place.”
The Starbucks Workers Fund awards $2,500 cash stipends to qualifying current and former Starbucks employees to cover the costs of organizing and for personal expenses like rent, health insurance and groceries. The fund is supported by public donations. Go to coworkerfund.org/contribute/ to donate.
For the foreseeable future, the struggle for justice continues for members of the Memphis Seven, for Poplar-Highland Starbucks union members and for SBWU organizers around the country.
“I’m no longer afraid to stand up for myself or for others,” Hardin said. “I got to Starbucks and it was like immediate friends and family…I’m really proud of myself now. The union allowed me to have that voice.”
Brittany Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at email@example.com
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.