MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Seven employees of a Tennessee Starbucks who were fired after starting unionization efforts claimed victory Tuesday when their Memphis store voted to join a wave of U.S. locations of the coffee chain that have decided to organize.
The so-called Memphis Seven jumped for joy, hugged one another and wept after a count held by the National Labor Relations Board showed an 11-3 vote in favor of unionization of a Starbucks store near the University of Memphis.
The group pushed for a union for months, even after their firing in February on allegations by Starbucks that they violated store security rules. The baristas are pushing for reinstatement and want to help other Memphis stores unionize.
“The reason that I am filled with tears is because Memphis Seven has fought so hard,” said Nikki Taylor, one of the fired workers. “To know that that work didn't go in vain, that fight didn't go in vain, that losing sleep didn't go in vain, it's amazing to me.”
After the vote Tuesday, Starbucks said it respects the process and will bargain in good faith.
Other U.S. locations planned union votes Tuesday. Two Starbucks in Chicago voted against unionization, while a third voted yes, the labor relations board said. Other votes were scheduled in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Portland, Oregon; Albany, New York; and Lawrence, Kansas.
Seattle-based Starbucks has 9,000 company-run U.S. stores. Nationally, the NLRB has received 280 union petitions for Starbucks locations, board spokeswoman Kayla Blado said. Of 149 vote counts, 122 locations have voted for a union and 79 have been certified, Blado said.
A store in Atlanta voted Monday to become the first unionized Starbucks in the city's metro area, news outlets reported.
The Memphis group announced a campaign to unionize on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday this year. Starbucks then fired them, alleging violations of policies related to maintaining a secure work environment and safety standards. Workers allowed unauthorized people into the store when it was closed, Starbucks said.
But the seven Memphis baristas claimed they were let go because of efforts to join Starbucks Workers United. The NLRB has asked a Memphis federal court to order their reinstatement. A hearing was scheduled for Thursday.
The firings generated national interest as a symbol of workers' battles to unionize in big corporations. The Rev. William Barber of the Poor People's Campaign led a march in March in support of the Memphis Seven, who watched Tuesday's online count at the campaign office of Steve Mulroy, a Democrat running for Shelby County district attorney.
One of the workers, Beto Sanchez, said firing seven workers at the same time was a “stupid” decision.
“They tried to use us to scare other unions, to scare other stores, to scare everyone else,” Sanchez said, adding that his colleagues were fighting for “respect, for dignity, for workers’ rights.”
Sanchez, a store supervisor before he was fired, claimed his fellow workers had been left at times without hot water or air conditioning. He said Starbucks didn’t always treat his store's employees well during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement sent to The Associated Press on Monday, the company said it was “listening and learning” from workers in stores seeking union support.
“From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed,” the statement said.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, a longtime union foe, said during a corporate earnings call in May that the company respects the rights of Starbucks’ employees and will bargain where it’s required to. But he also insisted that employees don’t need a union to get the best-in-class wages and benefits Starbucks provides.
Schultz then announced $200 million in new investments for non-union stores, including raises for veteran employees and more training time for new baristas. The company even promised one of the union’s priorities — credit card tipping — before the end of this year.
Parties have one week to file objections, the NLRB said. If none are filed, results will be certified June 14.