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Union-seekers add star power to organizing push at local Starbucks

“What do we want?” was the call and “Union” was the response as the Rev. Dr. William Barber II led a march along Poplar Avenue in support of Starbucks employees moving to organize.

Barber, president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival,” was in Memphis on Wednesday for a spirited gathering of baristas and their supporters, who said Starbucks employees have a right to unionize.

At the center of the march was the “Memphis Seven” – fired in early February from the Starbucks location near Poplar Plaza, with Starbucks citing policies about safety and security. Picketing has continued since their firing.

On Wednesday, Barber brought a national spotlight on Starbucks baristas across the country. The Memphis rally kicked off in the parking lot of the Benjamin L. Hooks Library, only blocks away from the Poplar Avenue store.

Marchers signal their commitment to unionize Starbucks. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

Baristas from other cities joined the march.

“Angel” came from Buffalo, NY, where the Starbucks unionization movement started. She was apprehensive about the outcome of a then-pending vote on unionizing in Buffalo, asserting that “the voting is not being operated fairly.”

“That’s all right if it’s not fair, because that sets you up for what you can file afterward,” Barber told Angel. “Sometimes you have to lose to win…”

On Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board announced the results of the vote. Employees at three Buffalo-area Starbucks chose to form a union.

In a statement reported by the New York Times, Reggie Borges, a Starbucks spokesman, said, “We will respect the process and will bargain in good faith guided by our principles. We hope that the union does the same.”

Starbucks has about 9,000 company-owned stores throughout the nation; employees at six now have chosen to form a union.

Last December, employees at two other stores in the Buffalo area voted to unionize. Last month, workers at a store in Mesa, Ariz., followed suit.

Dr. William Barber II: “…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)

Employees at 100-plus Starbucks stores in more than 25 states have moved to join Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union.

Baristas from Knoxville joined the Memphis rally. Maggie Carter, a barista leading the Knoxville push to unionize, stepped forward when Barber asked her to talk about what is going on.

“Good Lord, how old are you?” Barber asked.

“I’m 27,” said Maggie.

“You know, you young people, 27 in the movement is old,” Barber said. “Tell me what’s going on in Knoxville.”

“Yes, sir. So they are having separate one-on-one meetings,” said Maggie. “Management is trying to intimidate the employees. They’re telling employees we won’t get our full benefits. They are cutting hours so we can’t pay our bills. They are telling us our working conditions cannot be addressed, and they are misleading employees about what unionizing really means.”

Barber said that means management is afraid of the workers’ power.

“Always remember, you measure your power by the amount of lies and tricks your adversary has to use,” he said. “They say they will never agree to anything. If you weren’t powerful, they wouldn’t meet with you individually…it is because they understand the power of organizing and the power of labor.”

Local union members also joined the rally, singing and chanting, “Ain’t gone let nobody turn me’round, turn me ‘round, turn me ‘round. Ain’t gone let nobody turn me ‘round, Gonna keep on walking, keep on marching, marching down Labor Way…”

The marchers found support waiting when they reached the Starbucks destination. The crowd cheered on the Memphis Seven.

“Memphis is a union town,” said one of the fired Memphis employees. “Workers built Memphis. Whether it was the sanitation workers, the Kelloggs workers, or any other union, this is not a new story.

“Some would say, ‘Just go get a new job.’ That’s not what this is about. Not respecting the workers … workers rights, we should not have to ask for them. They are basic human rights.”

Barber closed out the rally.

“…We are going to stay in the street … people have to rise up, people have to stand up,” he said.

“Somebody said, ‘Rev. Barber, why are you wearing a robe?’ It’s because 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.”

Dr. William Barber II leads a chant at the rally in support of efforts to bring a union to Starbucks. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

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