Starbucks Just Lost One of Its Most High-Profile Union Battles

A Starbucks in Memphis voted decisively for a union, even after seven of its organizers were fired.
Starbucks worker Kaylie McKinley wears a t-shirt and button promoting unionization, outside a Chicago location on April 7, 2022. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

A Starbucks in Memphis, Tennessee, voted decisively in favor of a union Tuesday, more than three months after seven workers there were fired after they did a local television interview inside the store.

The store at Poplar Ave. and Highland St. voted 11-3 in favor of a union, after the National Labor Relations Board counted ballots cast by mail last month. “Today, workers showed @Starbucks what solidarity looks like,” Starbucks Workers United, the union representing the workers, said in a tweet following the vote. 

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Nabretta Hardin, a barista and one of the “Memphis Seven” who was fired in February, told VICE News after the vote that the win was “amazing.”

“This is so exciting and we expect more stores to try and unionize in Memphis,” Hardin said in a text message. 

Starbucks did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the result. 

After Starbucks terminated Hardin and six of her co-workers, alleging that the workers had violated safety and security protocols, the workers filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB, claiming Starbucks had retaliated against them for their union activity. More than a dozen workers across the country have alleged they were fired in retaliation for organizing activity. 

In May, the NLRB filed in federal court for an injunction to immediately reinstate the workers, with the NLRB’s regional director in New Orleans calling Starbucks’ conduct “egregious” and saying it is “crucial that these seven employees be reinstated and that Starbucks cease its unlawful conduct immediately so that all Starbucks workers can fully and freely exercise their labor rights.” The Memphis 7 workers’ ballots were counted as part of the tally Tuesday; their court hearing is scheduled for Thursday. 

NLRB officials have also accused Starbucks of retaliation in Buffalo and Phoenix, using methods such as selective write-ups for violations such as dress codes and attendance, suspensions, and firings to get rid of union organizers. Starbucks has repeatedly denied the charges. Starbucks Workers United has filed well over 100 unfair labor practice charges against the company accusing it of retaliation; last week, Starbucks officials said they would shut down a store in Ithaca, New York, just two months after workers there vote to unionize. 

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“I think the high-profile firings is why we succeeded. They tried to use it as a scare tactic, that ‘this is going to happen to you if you unionize,’ but they just made our store stronger,” Nikki Taylor, another of the Memphis 7, said during a press conference following the vote. “To see us be fired immediately hurt everyone at our store.”

The store is the 124th in the U.S. to vote to unionize, according to the labor outlet More Perfect Union, which is tracking Starbucks union votes; more than 85 percent of stores that have voted so far have gone in favor of unionizing. The Memphis store is the second in Tennessee to unionize, after a store in Knoxville voted in favor of a union earlier this year

The unionizing Starbucks workers in Memphis referenced the city’s rich labor history, including the Kellogg’s workers who struck for a new contract last year and the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, which prompted Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Memphis preceding his assassination. 

“Memphis is going to be a new place for unions, just like it was in history,” former Starbucks shift supervisor and Memphis 7 member Beto Sanchez said during the press conference. “The streets we walk today have union written all over them, and we’re just keeping it going.” 

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