Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg welcomed Lakota McGlawn, Nikki Taylor, Kylie Throckmorton, Emma Worrell, Nabretta Hardin, and Beto Sanchez to the stage at The Future of Food @ SXSW in Austin, Texas. They are six members of the Memphis 7, a group of Starbucks employees that were fired after seeking to form a union their store in Memphis, Tennessee, in February 2022.
“The biggest thing Starbucks likes to do is protect their image, more than they protect their employees,” says Sanchez. “They have this image of being a very progressive, forward-leading company, but they are simultaneously union-busting wherever they can.”
According to Throckmorton, the group was inspired to form a union while watching other Starbucks stores going through the process. The Memphis 7 had experienced similar working conditions to those forming a union in the Buffalo, New York, area.
“We had a lot of customers come in and belittle our baristas, threaten to hit them, and make them feel unsafe to the point where they wanted to quit,” says Throckmorton.
Many of the Memphis 7’s coworkers were struggling to get enough working hours to pay their bills, according to Taylor, and “COVID precautions were little-to-none.” Managers would force safety protocols upon employees without following the protocols themselves, “putting all of us in danger,” she says.
“At this point, corporations are taking advantage of the fact that workers don’t realize a lot of the benefits that they would have through unions,” says Sanchez says.
Some of the Memphis 7 members’ grandparents marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. “Now, it’s picking up where they left off,” says Sanchez.
The group has seen strong support from their community throughout the fight to form a union, and many customers are joining the picket line themselves.
“Starbucks wanted us to make these personal connections with our customers and that’s what’s been backfiring against them,” Sanchez says. “Because the people who are our regulars—8 am every day getting their coffee—are now seeing that their favorites baristas were thrown out to the streets.”
“We’re not just fighting for ourselves, we’re fighting for a better working class,” says Taylor.
According to Throckmorton, consumers visiting Starbucks stores can support the group’s effort in a number of ways: visiting locations that are making an effort to form a union, adding “Union Strong” to Starbucks mobile orders, and supporting baristas by both tipping and simply asking how they’re doing.
“Don’t be afraid to go into Starbucks and show your support, because it sends the message to corporate that this is going to be a good thing for the workers and the community,” says Throckmorton.
“We’re not just fighting for each other,” says Taylor. “We’re doing something huge, and we’re going to make a huge difference for the future.”