Fired Starbucks employees in Memphis rally with Three Brothers Coffee workers
Max Harper drove to Memphis from Nashville, to protest in support of the Memphis Seven, baristas who were fired from Starbucks in Memphis, Tennessee. The employees believe it was retaliation for organizing a union, but Starbucks maintains it was due to violations. (Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht ©)
The letter falsely told workers they would be charged up to $1,040 in union dues annually from their paychecks. The group of five baristas would become part of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1995 if they win the election, but union representative and organizer Chris Branum said in an interview on Tuesday that workers wouldn’t pay any dues until UFCW could deliver an agreeable contract, which could include wage increases, that the group would vote on. For the campaign, election and organizing, the baristas aren’t charged anything at all. When they do pay union dues, material obtained from employees estimate the cost would be closer to $600 annually.
The letter was delivered just days after baristas from two Nashville and Memphis coffee shops joined together on March 20 outside the Starbucks location on the corner of Poplar Avenue and Prescott Street. Workers held signs that read “Union makes our coffee strong” and “Our comrades in Memphis are victims of capitalism.” Workers at the rally said both locations have made their efforts to organize increasingly more difficult, with Three Brothers owners canceling a scheduled employee meeting after learning Branum would attend. Starbucks has already fired seven of its employees for organizing, a group now called the Memphis Seven.
On Sunday, an employee who did not wish to give their name approached the rally after finishing a shift inside the business and said the cafe inside has been closed for weeks, and that a district manager for Starbucks approached employees and told them that while she wanted to tell all the employees to vote no in the union election, implied she knew employers aren’t supposed to that, and said she would tell employees to simply vote. A Starbucks representative was not immediately available to comment on why the cafe has been closed, but some sources believe it’s simply because of COVID restrictions.
While anti-union efforts are legal, the National Labor Relations Board prohibits supervisors and managers from coercively questioning workers, threatening or bribing employees or penalizing them in any way for union activity. Branam says that so far, neither of the two locations have directly violated NLRB regulations, but they toe the line. He also said large corporations often use predictable tactics when pushing back against union organization.
“They get right to the edge of the law and stomp all over it,” Branum said. “Every campaign is exactly the same. They all use the same tactics.”
However, Branum said employees in the current market are receiving encouragement from individuals who previously didn’t support unions. In the current economic climate, he said, workers have power.
“Their voice is so much stronger right now,” Branum said of the Three Brothers group, also called Coffee Workers of the South United. “Americans that usually oppose unions are [telling] workers to stand up for themselves.”
No individuals approached the rally group on Sunday who did not previously support unions, but Branam’s market analysis about an increase in community support was immediately proven true. A grandmother arrived with her grandchildren and gave her first name, Cary, as dozens of cars passing by shouted approval or honked in support of the workers on the sidewalk. She said that although was not personally in a union, she supported baristas and wanted her two granddaughters to learn about worker’s rights and the freedom to demonstrate.
“I was alerted through Facebook and I just had to be here,” the Memphis native said. “This has been a place I’ve bought from for many years and I know the baristas and I support them. Solidarity with workers. We need a union.”
Starbucks managers were not available for comment during Sunday’s rally, but a spokesperson sent a statement via email on Wednesday morning that said the company believes they are better able to work with employees without a union. The statement said Starbucks respects a worker’s legal right to engage in union activity and organize. Still, current employees say they’re frustrated by a lack of communication from management, and that the company instead publishes public press statements. Last week, the New York Times reported that CEO Kevin Johnson would be quitting in part because of company stress over the dozens of union applications that have been filed in the US. Former CEO Howard Schultz will return to lead the company at least temporarily.
The Lookout obtained an email Three Brothers co-owner TJ Wilt, Jr. sent to an unnamed employee that claimed the recently canceled meeting between owners and employees was shelved because he was “concerned and wanted to make sure the current working environment was going to remain a safe space for all.” However, Wilt denied that the company was sending anti-union literature via an email statement on Wednesday.
“Please know that we have not disseminated any ‘anti-union’ letter,” Wilt said.” We hope that all of our employees’ voices will be heard in the upcoming election, and, in that regard, our goal is simply to ensure that our employees make an informed decision when they cast their vote in the upcoming election.”
Shortly before a Kroger-branded 18-wheeler rolled by and honked support for the Memphis group while waving, former Starbucks employee and one of the Memphis Seven, Kylie Throckmorton, said she’s confident the group will succeed in unionizing at their store despite feeling corporate pushback.
“It’s very positive,” Throckmorton said. “It looks like we’re going to win the vote.”
Members of Three Brothers Coffee feel similarly optimistic and on Sunday, were perhaps even more energetic about collaborating with a group of workers experiencing similar struggles like low wages, a stressful industry and rising costs of living.
“We are doing something as a unit in solidarity,” one Three Brothers worker said. “We gotta get down to business. We’re in this together.”
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