WW speaks with fired Starbucks workers: ‘We were able to stoke the fires of workers everywhere’

On April 30, WW managing editor, Monica Moorehead, interviewed 25-year-old Beto Sanchez and 22-year-old LaKota McGlawn, two of the seven fired Starbucks workers based in Memphis, Tennessee. The two young workers were in New York City to speak at the May Day rally and march initiated by the Workers Assembly Against Racism (WAAR). The other fired workers are Nikki Taylor, Nabretta Hardin, Kylie Throckmorton, Emma Worrell and Florentino Escobar. Go to @memphisseven901 on Twitter and memphis_seven901 on Instagram. 

Beto Sanchez & LaKota McGlawn speak at May Day rally in New York City, May 1, 2022. WW PHOTO: Brenda Ryan

WW: When were you hired by Starbucks?

Beto Sanchez: I was hired in April 2021, and I would have almost made a year if I hadn’t been fired.

WW: What made you want to work at Starbucks in the first place?

BS: It was before COVID had happened. I was a music producer. I was part of the music industry. And that took a big blow when the pandemic happened. I was losing all my gigs, all my festival jobs, recording jobs — all of the above. It was a pretty bad time to be a live musician when COVID hit. But I had bartending experience, and I saw that Starbucks was needing people. So, I threw my hat in there. I was like, yeah, why not? I’ll go for it. And by the time I had applied, I was already immediately pushed in to be a shift manager there. I have experience teaching and coaching people. So I can definitely see what happens there. And now fast-forward to almost a year later, I’m now on the front lines trying to help baristas everywhere.

WW: You were raised in South Central Los Angeles?

BS: Yeah, that’s where that’s where I was born. That’s where my mom raised me. That’s where I had my first experiences with capitalism, of poverty and at such a very young age. It came to the point that even growing up, obviously I would see a lot of crime. I would see people doing their best to survive. But then I guess it would kind of hit me in the head later on; you thinking, this person that’s having to sell drugs to put food on the table, the mothers that are having to shoplift baby formula or diapers. 

It took me a while to understand why it needed to be that way. And I guess it’s between living in Memphis, living in Chicago, where these problems are exacerbated by poverty, by homelessness, and how wide the gap is between a living wage and your normal wage. 

I don’t want to say it’s radicalized me because it’s kind of sad to think that wanting respect, wanting living necessities is something that’s considered radical. I feel that being able to afford something that’s good for your humanity, for your living, like food, like some place to live, like necessities of life — I feel like that shouldn’t be something radical and something that we need to fight for to begin with.

WW: LaKota, tell me about yourself and how you came to work at Starbucks and including how long you had worked in Starbucks before being terminated?

Lakota McGlawn: I was hired in December of 2020, and then I was eventually promoted to shift supervisor. It was a time where I just needed a job. because I was kind of just stagnant; and I had a kind of almost romanticism of being a Starbucks barista. It looks kind of cool. I know I’m going to have to mop floors and wash dishes, but I went ahead and applied and got hired, and I really enjoyed it.

WW: You said you were from Arkansas, so what brought you to Memphis in the first place?

LM: It was about a 30-minute drive. I know a lot of people, depending on where they live, 30 minutes feels like an eternity. But being raised in the suburbs, I’m used to taking those drives.

Subhead: ‘It’s about accountability’

WW: What brought about the seven of you being fired?

LM: We originally had a news crew come in. They had heard our story, and they wanted to do an interview with us before our store closed. But Starbucks created these lies about how we broke dozens and dozens of policies over safety. And they brought in an investigator from our partner resources and actually didn’t even tell us that we were being investigated, because we’re supposed to sign a document. None of us were given a document to sign. And despite us not hearing about most of these policies, like not being allowed to go into the back when you’re off-duty or not wearing a mask while off-duty, we were just terminated like three weeks later.

BS: One of the biggest issues between this fight that we’re part of is the accountability part, because a lot of the things that they were trying; and we had suspected this from the very beginning when we unionized. 

Nikki, one of the Memphis Seven, the organizing committee, and I would always joke maybe they’re going to fire me for this or that because we were always suspecting, that once we went public with the unionization, they would try anything to get rid of us, because we were a very outspoken group. We were very stubborn, I’ll tell you that. And which is probably why Starbucks was so aggressive with us, because we knew exactly where we stood. We weren’t afraid and we knew what we were doing was right. So we were strong on our feet. 

And I guess for the entire time we knew that Starbucks would try to find any reason to fire us; things that were never enforced in the beginning, all of a sudden everything was being enforced. Nikki was fired for going behind the line while not on the clock yet. Every single day, every single shift she’s had for the past three years at this point, because I opened, she always comes to the back line to tell me what’s up and how’s it going.

BS: For three years nothing was ever enforced. All of a sudden, now that she’s a union leader, it’s enforced and they fire her for it. And that could be said for all of us. It’s about accountability. I was fired for having a mask off while off duty, which doesn’t make sense. 

Now, Beretta was fired for locking the door or opening a closed door, and that wasn’t the case. I’ve heard about 10 different versions of how we were fired at this point. Starbucks loves to misinform people. Our store was not closed. It was 6:00 p.m. And they keep saying that we opened the closed door, when that, in fact, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. You know, we were still serving customers. There were still customers inside that we were serving. Tina, Narita and the rest of them were all fired for things that were never enforced to begin with. 

And all of a sudden they decide to botch an investigation and pick very stupid reasons to sign up on terminations. And at that point, we were afraid that this would happen to other workers around us. And it has been you know; we have Cassie Flesher, Leila Dalton, Alyssa Bill.

BS: I could keep going on and on about the workers that are slowly being fired, and all of them surprisingly are fired the same way we are. None of us have had write-ups or previous things, and they skipped every step of discipline when they decided to fire us. They didn’t give us a warning. They didn’t give us the write-up or any written warnings or coaching. So they went straight to termination. 

While at the same time, since we’re talking about accountability, we had a shift manager at our store who was being investigated because he was sexually harassing our co-workers and minors at the store. Yet Starbucks decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. So it’s very obvious, when you get to see what they choose to enforce one or not to enforce. And at the end of the day, what they choose to terminate people for and what they choose not to do.

Left to right: Monica Moorehead, LaKota McGlawn and Beto Sanchez at the NYC Solidarity Center, April 30.

Intolerable working conditions

WW: And what were some of the issues and the conditions that led to you all being organizers in the first place? 

BS: Unfortunately, these issues are not unfamiliar with workers everywhere. Our store is one of the very old stores that was never renovated. If you ever go to McDonald’s, you can tell the difference between the classic ones and the renovated ones. We still have an old store which is a former Taco Bell. There’s a lot of things that they keep dangling our renovation in front of us like a carrot on a stick. Like if you make more sales, maybe we’ll give you a renovation. 

It’s very undignified of them to be like that with this at this point. We had to fill in so many incident reports and issues with their stores that at the end of the day ended up becoming OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] violations. We’ve had a lot of exposed wires at our place. The drainage is awful. We didn’t have hot water for half the time that we were operating. We don’t even have the OSHA labor posters that are supposed to be on every single facility that’s like operating as an employer. 

And time and time again, these are things that management should be in trouble for. And I feel that that’s a lot more reason for someone to be terminated than what we did. And at this point, we shouldn’t have to ask for safe working conditions to begin with. This shouldn’t be something we have to fight for. The fact that it is just goes to show what Starbucks really cares about, and it’s definitely not our safety.

WW: Do you have anything to add, LaKota?

LM: We also had a lot of scheduling issues. We would be scheduled outside of our availability. For example, I take care of my grandmother, and we had decided that one day of the week would be like the day that I would take her to her doctor’s appointments. And so, all of her doctor’s appointments are set on that day, and I was scheduled on that day without being asked or anything. And I had to work my grandmother’s appointments around that day, because it was a meeting for the shift supervisors. 

Safety, as Beto said, has been another big thing. And along with the accountability, because sometimes our district manager wouldn’t do the COVID check-in that they’re supposed to do; you’re supposed to do it at each store. And then when our partner relations told us that he doesn’t have to do that. But you know, you can if you’re going in between two locations. If you go somewhere else, you could have a chance of catching COVID in that middle location. And if we end up having a breakout, and he didn’t sign the COVID check-in, we’re not going to know where it came from. We’re not going to know who was exposed.

WW: So how do you view what’s going on throughout the country, especially with union rank-and-file grassroots organizing led by young people like yourself. How do you view the Memphis Seven’s situation within that framework of what’s going on around the country? 

LM: I definitely see it as tied together because especially with younger people, they’ve seen how they’ve been failed by the system before them. And we’re tired of it. And we’re just at this point looking for a change. And I guess if we have to be that change, then I guess it is, yeah.

LaKota McGlawn smashes pinata showing Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s face in front of his NYC $40 million penthouse, May 1. WW PHOTO: Brenda Ryan

Bourgeois co-option

BS:. Whenever I say that there’s a lot of times in history with things like this where corporations find themselves on the wrong side, using this exploitation; and this is something that’s unfortunately pretty prevalent between workers of all ages. A lot of the things that unions fought for, what we have nowadays, like the five-day workweek. It didn’t used to be like that, but it was because of the push that unions gave that gave us benefits that we have today: organizations like OSHA that are meant for accountability, for the safety of workers at this point.

We’re seeing this union movement being led by 18 year olds, 17 year olds. I met Katie McCoy in Seattle, who is 17 years old, leading a union force where she’s part of the Service Workers Union. It’s college kids who are tackling billionaires, tackling corporations, because at this point, we’ve witnessed a lot of the accountability that corporations like them don’t take. How many times do we see every time Pride’s coming around, all the corporations love to put out their little rainbow logos to pretend that they care about stuff like that.

And as soon as July hits, all of a sudden it’s gone. You know, how many times do we see corporations trying to promote Earth Day, when at the same time they’re the ones causing the biggest pollution in the earth? And let alone, you know, Memphis is full of union history. We know Nabretta’s grandfather here. She was part of the Memphis Seven. Her grandfather walked along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. She’s part of the sanitation workers strike. Memphis is full of history. 

But we all remember that they never called Dr. Martin Luther King peaceful when he was still alive. They always called him radical. They always called him antagonistic. But all of a sudden now we have corporations using quotes of his to promote or market things. It’s stuff like that left a bad taste in my mouth when we decided to file for a union. And that’s exactly why we filed on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Memphis, because when we had to witness a corporation that loves to promote Black Lives Matter wearing, Black Lives Matter shirts, but simultaneously firing Black workers for unionizing. At the end of the day, it just goes to show what Starbucks really cares about, which is their image.

Every single time you see something about Starbucks, they do their best to catch on to whatever is going on in the world and find a way to profit off of it. And at that point, it’s something that is sad, distasteful; it’s honestly pathetic if I think about it, because those are people that don’t go through those issues. These billionaires never had a need for unions. And they always say that they don’t want unions, because Howard Schultz himself is not working in unsafe working conditions. He’s not suffering from wage theft. He’s not worrying about what he needs to put on the table. 

We are unfortunately at 17, 18, 19, we’re already having those issues that we’re having to worry about. How much can I spend on tuition for college while also being able to eat this week? And I believe that it’s also COVID showing its true colors with corporations. And sometimes it takes something like a pandemic to give that push and show what corporations really care about, whether it’s the workers or their profit. And Starbucks chose their profits.

Monica: What’s currently happening with your situation? 

LM: We have had the National Labor Relations Board officially file against Starbucks to give us our jobs back because [their termination] was officially deemed illegal. Right now, we’ve had a lot of people have to get other part-time jobs, just so that they are able to still keep food on the table because we did lose our jobs. The mentality of those of us who are fired hasn’t even dipped. Despite all that, we’re still just as strong as ever. 

Honestly, if we are not stronger, like each and every day we have these pushes where we’re just — it just makes us angry. And I feel like if you check out like Nikki’s social media, she’s one of our biggest fighters through this and has really shown how as much as Howard Schultz wants to break us into pieces, we’re stronger together because we really are a family. We get on each other’s nerves like a family. But at the end of the day, we hug out our situation, and it’s all good. I want it to be better. 

Legacy of May Day: Making sacrifices

WW: The two of you all flew here from Memphis to New York City to be here for May Day, International Workers Day. The eight-hour day was won because of that particular struggle through so much sacrifice, similar to the sacrifice that you all are making right now. Why is it important for you all to be here on May Day 2022? 

Beto Sanchez points up at Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s NYC residence on May Day. WW PHOTO: Brenda Ryan

BS: It takes movements like this that you get to see parts of history right in front of yourself. It’s honestly like picking up where they left off. Every day that I was in Memphis, we lived so close to the Civil Rights Museum. There’s so much rich history there about the many people that had to put their lives for sacrifices, for people that they will never meet in the future. Some of the biggest criticisms and questions I receive is why are you doing this for a part-time job? Why don’t you just get a better job? Why don’t you get an education? Why don’t you do this? 

It comes down to a level of selflessness. One needs to have to be able to maintain a fight like this, because I could have gotten a different job at any time. I do have an education. I have a degree. I have many things that I could have ignored and just left it like that. But like Howard Schultz, there’s a lot of people out there who are selfish with the money that they have, with what they do. They don’t want it to be easier for other people because it was hard for them. Or sometimes like billionaires, it was always easy for them, and they don’t care about workers. 

I care too much for workers. I care very, very strongly about workers, because when it comes to the point that I have to see the people that I am calling my family being mistreated by billionaires, being mistreated by corporations, not given the dignity and respect that they need as a worker, it makes my blood boil just a little bit. It makes me fight harder and harder every day to be able to make sure that everyone is able to live without having to worry about having food on the table, about being able to live in peace and knowing that they are respected as workers. 

It’s about having people with a common cause, being able to have something to fight against. It’s a lot of times in history that unfortunately, there’s a lot of people that put down their lives for things like this. But at the same time, when you give people something to fight for, they will go the full mile for it. 

Being able to be here at Union Square, being able to have the Memphis Seven here in New York, it’s honestly a wonderful thing to be able to inspire people, because even though we were fired for wanting to make the world a better place, even though we want things to be better for workers, it goes to show that no matter how much Starbucks wanted to make martyrs of us and scare people by firing us, instead we were able to stoke the fires of workers everywhere.

We had so many stores immediately filing for unionization a week after we were fired and talking about sharing our story. And that’s the biggest fight that we can be a part of as workers, by fighting with information, letting them know that no matter how much corporations like Starbucks want to scare you, want to say that you’re going to lose benefits. You can lose this. You know that it’s not true. You have workers everywhere here, no matter how much they want to call us a “third party.”

The union is the workers; I am a partner. I was a former partner of Starbucks. And thankfully, I’m going to be reinstated and so will the Memphis Seven and hopefully so will the rest of the workers that were wrongfully terminated, because unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there like us who were fired from their jobs for unionizing. They’re not getting the same attention that we are. And this is for those workers everywhere. And I’m hoping that we could at least be a source of inspiration for them.

WW: Well, you certainly are. The Memphis Seven are the perfect example of an injury to one is an injury to all.

LM: I really feel like Beto. We were lucky to have our case rushed by the NLRB. A lot of other workers who go to court for the same situation can wait up to about 10 months for them to get their job back. We still want to show support for those workers and even show that billionaires can’t keep getting away with this union busting and the exploitation of their workers who they treat as disposable. I really just want to show that the working class is not disposable. And you can’t replace us all with robots.

WW: Cool. That’s great. Do you want to say anything more on the kind of support you all have been getting around the country and to build on this support forward?

LM: We’ve had a tremendous amount of support from our community and from other unions as well. We’ve had other union leaders offer to give us a space if we need a place to make posters or to congregate and have meetings. Even my mom asked me to give her pens and shirts for her co-workers, because she’s also a member of a union. She was also wrongfully terminated, and she was with her union and her union reps, who are still her co-workers. She was able to get her job back. 

But seeing the support from other people, who walk by us and even just like see our shirt and say like, hey, I support the fight. It really makes me emotional.

‘There’s a power in numbers’

BS: The community has been an important part of keeping us going. Being able to fight a Fortune 100 company like this, it does take a lot out of you. There’s been times where I find myself exhausted, seeing how sometimes it seems like an uphill battle, but at the same time keeping track with all these stores that are unionized, being able to meet these leaders everywhere, being able to talk to these workers one-on-one, it rejuvenates me. 

And as well as being able to see the tremendous amount of support that the community has been able to show us, even when I was still working at Starbucks and part of the organizing committee, the first time that we had announced the organizing, there were so many customers that would show us support. They would write notes for us. They would tell us to put their order in for Union Strong. They would show their support through the drive-through. 

There are so many media that at this point it’s important to be able to take a moment to just think about everything that has been going on and to be able to properly show my gratitude for people everywhere who are understanding this. Because what we’re going through is unfortunately something that’s not new. It’s happening to workers everywhere, in many trades, many disciplines, many industries. 

I’ve always said that the coffee industry has always been a great place for unionization, because what’s happening to us is unfortunately happening to the coffee farmers. It’s happening to the supply-chain workers. It’s happening to the manufacturers. So the warehouse is where all of us have been underneath the same scrutiny from the same managers, from the same corporations. 

And it’s something that I was able to relate with every single time I met another union leader from a different union or different trade. The moment that we had the AFL-CIO or UFCW [United Food and Commercial Workers] or any of the food-workers union people seeing what was happening to us, they said what’s happening to union leaders back in the ’60s, back in the ’80s — that is happening now. It’s unfortunately an old story, the story of workers being exploited for profit. But thankfully, the community has been able to help me see that there’s a power in numbers.

There’s always going to be more of us than there will be of them. There is a great power whenever workers unite, because we are able to move mountains, whenever we find we have something that we need to fight for. And in terms of direct support you’re always able to send a message to any of us on social media. We’re everywhere.

And I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of support for a lot of the union leaders out there everywhere, because these are just kids. A lot of times there’s so much going in their head that sometimes makes them want to just fall down and cry. But being able to just say a word, just say something or show any type of support, it means the world to us. And I’m glad to be able to keep doing this for workers everywhere.

But there’s definitely many out there, for several workers that have been fired. There’s a GoFundMe for us, for the workers in Seattle, for Layla, for Lisa, for Cassie, for many of the workers out there that I had the pleasure to meet. And thankfully, it’ll be going to people that are out there to help workers.

WW: This is a global struggle too. Starbucks is exploiting workers all over the world just like Amazon is.

BS: And Amazon was a big one too, and I’m very eager to be able to ever meet Chris Smalls. I definitely want to point out how significant something like that is, because Jeff Bezos, unfortunately, is a heavy fighter in exploitation. Being able to have a victory like that over a company like Amazon, if that doesn’t give you hope, I’m not sure what would. Yeah.

Monica Moorehead

Monica.Moorehead@workers.org

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Monica Moorehead

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