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Judge rules Starbucks should not have fired the ‘Memphis Seven’ for trying to unionize

Fired by Starbucks as they moved to form a union, a group of former workers – known as the Memphis Seven – have picked up the backing of a federal judge, who has ruled that the coffee-serving giant must give them their jobs back.

“Today, Aug. 18, 2022, is a tremendous victory for these workers,” said Kevin Bradshaw, president of the Memphis and West Tennessee AFL-CIO Central Labor.

“It is illegal for a company to retaliate against any worker because they are working to unionize. But companies do it all the time. It happens every day in Tennessee, believe me.”

The baristas, as they are called at Starbucks, were dismissed in February after interviewing with a local news outlet inside the Memphis store on Poplar near Highland. With efforts to unionize Starbucks workers underway in multiple cities across the nation, the firings drew widespread support.

In June in Memphis, a group of fired Starbucks employees celebrated the favorable result of a vote to unionize. (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz)

For its part, Starbucks maintains the firings were unrelated to union support. Company officials argue that the Memphis Seven workers had committed “significant violations of safety and security” by allowing in the news crew.

Starbucks is not backing down. A corporate statement details the intention to appeal the court ruling by Judge Sheryl H. Lipman of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. The employees must be rehired within five days, Lipman detailed.

“These individuals violated numerous policies and failed to maintain a secure work environment and safety standards,” according to the Starbucks news release. “Interest in a union does not exempt partners from following policies that are in place to protect partners, our customers and the communities we serve.”

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed the motion that challenged the firings.

Tennessee State Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a strong, local voice supporting the Memphis Seven, said Lipman’s ruling sends a “clear message that workers’ rights must be respected. …

“Every worker in America should have the freedom to join a union without fear of retaliation by a powerful company,” said Akbari. “I’m excited that the Memphis Seven have been rightfully returned to their positions.”

During his visit to Memphis to support Starbucks workers’ effort to form a union, Dr. William Barber II said, “…I want to say to clergy, if you ain’t standing on the side of the worker and poor folk, take your robe off and go do something else.” (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender Archives)

In March, Dr. William Barber II, resident and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, came to Memphis in support of the fired workers. A protest march from the Benjamin Hooks Library to the Starbucks at Poplar and Highland rallied workers and supporters.

“What do you want?” shouted Barber.

“Union,” marchers shouted back.

Five of the seven fired Memphis Starbucks baristas were union-organizing committee members. All seven favored unionizing. The NLRB announced in June that workers at the Starbucks voted 11-3 to unionize.

Bradshaw said Thursday’s ruling has implications that extend beyond the effort to unionize Starbucks in Tennessee.

“Every large employee across the state should take note,” said Bradshaw. “Firing workers who support a union, or talk to other workers about unionizing is against federal law. Look at Starbucks. …

“(A)nd any company that violates that law should be warned that you might get away with it in the short term, but in the long run, you lose.”


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