The Memphis Seven

Editor’s note: Alexander “Zan” Roach owns Boycott Coffee and is a former Starbucks manager.


One local coffee shop owner’s perspective on supporting workers

(L to R): Nabretta Hardin, Kylie Throckmorton, Beto Sanchez, Em Worrell, Nikki Taylor, and LaKota McGlawn (not pictured: Forentino Escobar)⁠ – Photography by Andrea Morales

If you are a customer of any type of coffee service in Memphis, then you need to listen up for a moment. Just one year ago, seven Memphis Starbucks employees were terminated from their positions at the Highland location. This type of action is relatively unheard of for a company that has a robust human resources division overseeing any policy infractions warranting disciplinary action and also claims to support progressive ideals. What would possibly cause a corporation to approve the firing of these baristas? From the corporate perspective, the individuals were collectively infringing on company policy to a degree that deserved immediate intervention.

From the perspective of the baristas, now known as the Memphis Seven, they were being made an example of because of their attempts to unionize. 

Before you knew it, all of this was put into the national spotlight since there already was an increasing amount of interest surrounding a mass appeal for cafes to adopt and honor the choice to unionize, led by labor organizer Starbucks Workers United. This labor group was no stranger to Starbucks anti-union methods since they were, at that time, built up from hundreds of cafes all gaining ground towards unionizing. 

But none had seen such negative retaliation, and that is why many activists rallied to support these Memphians, including politicians like Bernie Sanders and economists like Robert Reich, all notable allies in the efforts for the working class to gain access to income equality and the right to assemble.

While it’s always odd to see a much older generation hop on Tik Tok to craft poignant messages about employee rights accompanied by a trending sound, it’s nice to see Baby Boomers and Gen Zers come together for the greater good. 

Fast forward throughout the year, and the dust has not yet settled—but gains have been made. In August, The Memphis Seven were granted reinstatement of their positions thanks to efforts made by those baristas, Starbucks Workers United, and the National Labor Review Board (NLRB), who won an issuance at the federal court level against Starbucks. NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo had this to say: “Today’s federal court decision ordering Starbucks to reinstate the seven unlawfully fired Starbucks workers in Memphis is a crucial step in ensuring that these workers, and all Starbucks workers, can freely exercise their right to join together to improve their working conditions and form a union.”

It didn’t get much quieter for the rest of the year. More stores began to win their votes to unionize (278 as of this writing), and Starbucks continued to act as the baddie in the courts and public eye. CEO Howard Shultz, who had returned back to his role for the third time in his history with the company, is notorious for hosting public company meetings that praise the strength of their “partner program,” while diminishing, if not making villains of, those who attempt to seek labor support outside of the benefits package. Ironically, for being so upfront about his shared values with corporate stakeholders, Shultz was nowhere to be seen for an opportunity to testify in front of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (with Bernie Sanders acting as chair) about compliance issues with labor laws. Even better, two days later, a federal judge in Michigan hammered down an injunction to ban Starbucks from firing employees based on their request to unionize or “engage in other collective activities,” which is the first mandate of its kind within this movement. Currently the NLRB is seeking to reinstate not seven but 50 workers who have been terminated due to their involvement with the Workers United campaign.

What this means for you

But why does this matter to a customer? Things are getting taken care of, right?

Customers who go the extra mile to support local businesses should be active in their understanding of how laborers they gain services from are being treated within those establishments they give their money to.

This is not just in terms of financial compensation but also regulations of safety, scheduling of hours, and any other protections that may be offered through a union in a right-to-fire/hire state like Tennessee. 

In recent years, there has been a small portion of the specialty coffee industry that has pushed for unionization in order to secure higher wages, workplace protections, and ability to voice concerns. That movement hasn’t made its way to Memphis’s locally owned coffee shops, but that doesn’t mean that local customers have no responsibilities when it comes to the ethics of the businesses they frequent. It’s said that you shouldn’t piss off the people who make your food—but this idea makes a malicious character out of a person who really only desires the support of the people they work for and the people they serve. Instead, this should be the main thought when ordering from any food and beverage establishment: Make happy the people who make you happy.

Whether they’re buying from an international chain or a local small business, customers have the purchasing power to hold companies accountable in creating equitable workplace environments.

Hell, Dunkin Donuts is all about unions and actively supports them. It’s also critical to remember that the issue of equity doesn’t start at the barista. There is a whole supply chain filled with coffee farmers, millers, roasters, designers, marketers, and so on that all have the right to benefit from a movement to protect exploited laborers seeking access to collective bargaining power. 

Gaining insight on the potential effects of unionization on a scale as large as Starbucks is worth exploring as this could be a blueprint for addressing modern labor issues across many industries. For example, tech companies, like META, are following the promise of artificial intelligence and letting many employees go in their graphic design and web development departments. These companies, coincidently, are very anti-union.

The outcome of the Memphis Seven and the clear support on a federal level shows that unionization can be successful.

Overall, national change happens within corporate policy and federal legislation. These are things that customers have a hand in exercising either with their dollar or their right to vote for individuals that also support this type of change. Beyond brass tax, all of this activity is to prioritize worker dignity and security above the profits of companies that have paid so few so handsomely. Still, it’s encouraging to see that a small group of people from a small city can stand so much taller than would-be giants.

Alexander Roach is the co-owner and roaster of Boycott Coffee with 13 years of experience in the industry (four years being at Starbucks). As an English teacher for international communities from producing countries, he is working to bridge a wide gap between language and the coffee profession. @coffeeheartburn

Andrea Morales is the visuals director at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism and a documentary photographer in Memphis. She is Peruvian-born and Miami-bred. Her work moves with the intent of celebrating the in-between moments. @_andrea_morales