Nearly five weeks ago, Starbucks “partners” (corporate speak for employees) in Memphis joined the growing unionization movement that’s been spreading like wildfire across the country. Partners at the Memphis location publicly launched their union campaign on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, inspired by his legacy of supporting workers in Memphis. Like those workers who came before them—from the sanitation workers who rallied together to demand better wages and sick pay in 1968 with the support of Dr. King, to the Kellogg’s employees of Local 252G of the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM), who recently joined their union siblings around the country in a monthslong strike that ended with the ratification of a new five-year contract on Dec. 21 of 2021—Memphis Starbucks workers are carrying on the “fight for our safety and our rights as workers.” And Starbucks, predictably, is fighting back. 

On Feb. 8, seven workers were fired from the Poplar & Highland location in Memphis. The group, who quickly became known on social media as the “Memphis 7,” made up the original union organizing committee at that store location. They say they were fired because of their organizing efforts. Starbucks denies this. 

“We were fired over mundane things. The things we were fired for are things that nobody has been fired over in the past, and we believe that they fired us because we were too loud for Starbucks and they had to shut us down the only way they’ll knew how.”

Statement from the Memphis 7

“We were fired over mundane things. The things we were fired for are things that nobody has been fired over in the past, and we believe that they fired us because we were too loud for Starbucks and they had to shut us down the only way they’ll knew how,” the Memphis 7 said in a collective statement. Starbucks cited violations of safety and security policies, including remaining in the store after closing time with non-employees to do an interview with local media, as the cause of termination. 

That incident has only added to the resolve of the Memphis 7, who say they are even more committed than ever to forming a union. The community has also shown its support for the Memphis 7 by picketing outside of the Poplar & Highland location. Kevin Bradshaw, vice president of BCTGM Local 252G, said his members are backing the Memphis 7. “Everyone has the legal right to form a Union,” Bradshaw told TRNN. “Starbucks is showing America their ugly side with their union busting tactics! They will soon learn that Memphis is a Union town! Go Union!”

Current and former coworkers have also shown solidarity and expressed their support. “I am very proud of this team, of these seven partners, and the partners that are still within the company, that are brave enough to stand up for what they believe in [with] the unionization efforts,” Amy Holden, the former store manager at the Poplar & Highland location, told TRNN. “They know they were facing a huge challenge going into this, just from what they’ve seen across the nation and what they’ve seen in Buffalo. They knew what they were facing, and they were still brave enough to go after it and be vocal about what they had to say. They didn’t want to sit down, they didn’t want to be silent, they wanted to stand up and be loud, and have their voices heard, no matter what it cost them… I’m very proud to be their former store manager.” 

The push to unionize the Starbucks in Memphis began in Buffalo, New York, where Starbucks workers made history by becoming the first employees of the giant coffee chain to successfully unionize. Since then, the National Labor Relations Board announced that workers at a Starbucks in Mesa, Arizona, had voted to unionize on Feb. 25, and three more Buffalo-area stores voted to unionize on March 9. Those results bring the number of corporate-owned Starbucks stores with a union to six, out of almost 9,000 stores nationwide. 

Unionization efforts continue to spread across the country. Starbucks Workers United, a collective of Starbucks partners across Buffalo who are helping workers to unionize, has announced public union drives in over 100 locations across 25 states. Those numbers are growing every day.

As crucial as it is to highlight the truly impressive organizing victories that Starbucks workers have achieved in recent months, it is equally important not to forget those who are being ground down by Starbucks’ vehement union-busting efforts—from partners who say they are being retaliated against with punitive shift scheduling to the firing of pro-union partners like Cassie Fleischer and Daniel Rojas in Buffalo and, of course, the Memphis 7.

Still, the Memphis 7 continue to struggle for their right to unionize, and they know they are not alone. When asked, “How does it feel to be a part of the wave of unionization efforts happening at dozens of Starbucks locations?” this is what they said:

Beto Sanchez 

It feels like I am part of something that is a lot bigger than me, that it’s a movement that is as old as, I guess, work itself. It feels like I’m a part of history, because this isn’t a story that’s new. It’s something that’s been going around for the past couple hundred years, and it feels like I am part of something that’s bigger than myself and bigger than where I work or who I work for. It feels like I’ve joined a group of people, extraordinary people, workers across the country, across the globe, that are all fighting the same fight.

Emma Worriell

It definitely feels really inspiring to be a part of this process to get workers better rights. I know that Starbucks likes to paint itself as this progressive company, but when you take a look at their actual practices, you can see that the workers definitely aren’t getting the help that they need. So, I’m very happy to see so many other Starbucks employees fighting to give themselves better rights and to help out their coworkers.

Nikki Taylor

Being part of the unionization movement that’s happening across the country right now feels absolutely amazing to me. It’s a feeling of success. It’s a feeling of triumph. I know that each member, in their own way, is an inspiration to another member, so being inspirational is absolutely awesome. I know that what I’m doing, and what I’m fighting for, and the struggles that I’m going through today, are going to help someone else tomorrow. That feeling in itself is the most awesome feeling that I’ve had in a long time.

Kylie Throckmorton

So, I feel a little mixed about being a part of this, because it’s a little fight, but it is a little fight against the system that I don’t necessarily agree with. But after becoming a lot more active on social media (because, before this, I was never really active) I started seeing things like, “Oh, [you’re] just being attention seekers,” or “This is actually a really good company. I don’t understand why y’all are doing what you’re doing,” and everything like that. It kind of led me to question myself, because this isn’t really something I saw myself doing in the past. Even a few months ago, if you told me I was [going to be] doing this, I wouldn’t have believed you, but I’m slowly starting to conquer that feeling and starting to focus on a more “everybody else” perspective, because it is everybody else who is getting screwed over. So I’m doing this for them at this point, rather than myself.

Lakota McGlawn

It feels overwhelming, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing because I’m seeing all these other stores that are also unionizing in support with us here in Memphis. And it just lets me know that I’m on the right side of the street and that all these people that are unionizing with us are all together. It just goes to show that when the working class all gets together, we [have] numbers and we can really make a change. It really feels like I’m able to make a difference. And knowing that I’m making a difference, and hoping that I’m inspiring someone else to unionize in an effort where this has been long overdue, just almost makes me want to cry because I see how all these other people have been treated over the years—and knowing that they’re finally fighting back is truly amazing.

Tio Escobar

I feel, to begin with, that this is a unique experience and one of the most challenging, but wonderful, ones ever. Being a part of this wave of unionizing stores has really shed light to the fact that these dark sides that I have been presented with was something that I never would’ve expected to see, especially from this corporation. Now, being a part of a movement that is shedding light to this, and is actually trying to put up a fight to make a better place and a better future potentially, is jaw-dropping to me.

Especially being part of the Memphis 7, which I think has made a huge impact with this unionization wave, has really brought a whole brand new perspective into my life about how this multinational corporation can work and [how] it’s not all [just about] the good side—there’s also a bad side to things too. I think it’s just really, really shocking, and I think it’s one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had. Being part of this is just really amazing to me.

Also, especially, bringing the fact that I am the youngest one: I am 18 years old, I am a college student, and I think it’s just also a good representation out there for my generation that we can truly make a change as long as we stick together as a community, support each other, and not let our voices be silenced.

I think it’s just incredible how all of this unity and support that comes from every single person involved can make a huge difference, and potentially a huge change into whatever problem is presented. I really do think that, with this unionization wave, there will be big things coming. There have already been big things coming in itself, and the entire process has been ups and downs and it’s not going to be easy. No one told me it would be easy.

I have been presented with the question of “Why didn’t you just quit and look for another job?” Which is also another thing that [plays a big] part in this unionization wave, because if I just give up, then what is there for the next person? It’s just me leaving this situation for another person that might even find it harder to try and find a solution to.

So, for me, being a part of this big unionization wave is the most incredible, amazing experience and battle that I have ever fought and participated in… I feel so happy and I also feel challenged to keep on fighting. It has brought me bravery, courage, strength, and faith, and that is my take on this question.

Nabretta Hardin

It definitely feels amazing to be a part of the unionizing efforts. I know when we first started it, it was just a whirlwind of emotions, especially to do it on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It kind of hit home for me specifically, because my grandfather used to march in the MLK marches and do the sit-ins. So, for me personally, it’s been amazing to be a part of it, especially since MLK died helping the sanitation workers try to unionize here in Memphis. We’ve just gotten a lot of community support from other union organizations, from other unionized stores all over the country, and really kind of all over the world. It’s just been awesome and amazing to take part in this and to be a stepping stone in history.

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Jason Kerzinski is a New Orleans-based photojournalist and street portrait photographer. He’s published work in Capital & Main, The Progressive, Scalawag, as well as Antigravity Magazine.