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In These Times - March 21, 2022

In interviews, Starbucks workers tell In These Times that starting a union campaign is the first time they’ve felt hopeful in their adult lives. ​“A lot of us have gotten used to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness when it comes to our jobs,” says Rachel Ybarra, 22, an organizer at a Starbucks in Seattle. ​“But unionizing can give you a sense of agency,” Ybarra adds.

“If a union is involved, your coworkers have the power to go to bat for you.”

In Memphis, Tenn., Nikki Taylor, at age 32, is one of the oldest Starbucks baristas at the busy corner of Poplar Avenue and S. Highland Street. She says she feels like a mother figure to a ​“close-knit, regular barbecue-type family.” When she started as a shift supervisor two years ago, working in the café was a dream job — but this soon changed.

During the pandemic her store has faced chronic staffing shortages and baristas have been tasked with the work of three or four people. ​“You’re getting hundreds of drink orders, making them all yourself, still having to give that ultimate customer service,” Taylor says.

So workers began to talk. ​“When you’re working alongside people going through the same thing every day, you guys bond so much,” Taylor says.

One concern was pay. The starting wage at the store is about $12, and some workers take multiple jobs to make ends meet, Taylor says. According to MIT’s living wage calculator, the living wage in Memphis is $13.26 for a single adult, $18.02 for a family of four.

Another issue was Covid-19 policy. Vaccinated workers who were exposed to Covid-19 but had no symptoms were expected to work their shifts. During the highly contagious Omicron wave of the virus this winter, workers say they’d see people with known exposures come in for work, only to develop symptoms while on the clock. 

... The Starbucks union drive went public in Memphis on January 17, Martin Luther King Jr. Day — a deeply personal event for many of the Memphis workers.“We have [workers] here that were born and raised in Memphis, whose grandparents were in those same rallies and walks that Martin Luther King Jr. did,” says Beto Sanchez, 25, an R&B and jazz musician who began working at the Memphis café after the pandemic decimated the music industry. ​“We are practically 10 minutes away from Lorraine Motel [where King was assassinated]. Whether it was the Kellogg’s strike, whether it was the sanitation workers, there’s a lot of union history in this city.”


But immediately, workers say, they felt like they were under surveillance, with high-level managers frequenting the store, loitering in the café and watching the counter.

On February 8, Taylor, Sanchez and five other union supporters were fired without warning. The company cited minor policy violations that workers and a former store manager, Amy Holden, say were never enforced nor taught in training.

​“One of the employees literally walked in, signed her union card, took a sip of a drink and left — and she was fired,” Taylor says.

Starbucks rep Anthony D. claims the workers ​“violated several safety and security policies and protocols, including opening the store after hours, allowing unauthorized personnel inside, leaving the doors unlocked and opening the safe without permission.” Workers reply that, on the night being referenced, they did let a local news crew film in their lobby, all within 10 minutes of the store closing, which they say is company policy — but then they talked about the union campaign on camera.

“How we got fired is not why we got fired,” Sanchez tells In These Times. He notes he was the one fired for opening the safe while off-shift, though he generally had that authority as a shift supervisor. He also points out an irony: ​“Starbucks decided to tweet about Martin Luther King Jr. and then … decided to fire Black workers here in Memphis for unionizing.” Two of the seven fired workers, including Taylor, are Black.

“It’s union-busting, completely,” Taylor says. ​“We were loud, we were bold and the company tried to use us as examples. … That scare tactic wildly backfired.”

News of the firings spread rapidly, and the workers became known as ​“the Memphis 7.” Workers and community members gather outside the Poplar and Highland store early each morning to picket in solidarity. Within a week, rallies demanding their reinstatement sprang up in Boston, Chicago and on the doorstep of Starbucks headquarters in Seattle. Starbucks responded to the Memphis pickets by drastically reducing store hours in the name of ​“worker safety.” Sanchez says this shows they’re hitting the company ​“where it hurts … in the wallet.” ...
Read full report at In These Times