By Sara DiNatale
OXFORD – Haley Morgan lost her job at a liquor store when she came out as transgender last year.
The 23-year-old cycled through job interviews where she shared her new, chosen name. She didn’t get calls back.
That May, her college town’s Starbucks became a lifeline. The Seattle-based coffee chain had policies that supported trans workers and provided health insurance that could cover hormone replacement therapy.
But store managers never stayed for long, creating a chaotic workplace. And the one manager who did stick around made Morgan’s work life a nightmare.
“He was explicitly transphobic,” Morgan said. “He’d say things like my appearance gives away the fact I’m trans. He’d refer to me as a man as a way to belittle me.”
Workers at the Starbucks just outside the University of Mississippi’s campus were already frustrated that the new manager was given the position at all. He hadn’t worked at a Starbucks before. The situation got Morgan thinking about a strategy she was seeing at Starbucks stores across the country: unionizing.
The reasons to do so kept piling up in her mind: inconsistent scheduling, pay that has yet to hit $15 an hour, confusing performance metrics.
As a lifelong Mississippian, where federal data shows just 5.5% of workers are in unions, Morgan’s understanding was theoretical — what she learned through bits of American history in grade school and as a public policy major at UM. But as she saw the number of unionized Starbucks stores grow, she felt more confident trying.
Since a Buffalo Starbucks voted to form a union in December 2021, seven others have won union elections. More than 100 others have started petitioning to hold their own.
“Why not Mississippi?” Morgan thought.
On March 3, Morgan and eight coworkers signed a letter to the CEO expressing their intentions to unionize while pointing out consistent problems they’d seen at their location: lackluster leadership, understaffed shifts, and inappropriate comments and treatments from management.
Their efforts come amid a growing movement nationwide led by younger members in consumer-oriented jobs known for high turnover, not the stereotypical blue-collar trade work usually associated with union representation.
Amazon workers in Staten Island won their election last week. The workers who wrap Amy’s burritos in California and the people who box Hershey’s chocolate in Virginia are organizing, too, demanding better conditions and pay.
“The kind of grassroots efforts we are seeing are real and part of a broader pattern,” said Jarod Roll, a labor historian at the University of Mississippi. “Whether (young people) are leaving high school or leaving college, living-wage jobs or jobs that allow them to buy a house or pay off debt are hard to find. And that, in part, is the result of intense anti-union efforts over the last 50 years.”
Brenda Scott has been a voice for workers over three decades and is the president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees. At one point, her group represented6,000 workers in 1989. Now that number is fewer than 2,000, as workers have left and lost interest. It’s a challenge, she said, to keep people engaged rather than “on the bench.”
Mississippi’s so-called right-to-work laws make it so workers can opt-out of joining and paying dues to recognized unions, just like the rest of the South.
“The Mississippi labor movement has a lot of work to do,” Scott said. “Our numbers are low.”
In 2020, Mississippi’s number of union workers was at about 7,400. In 2021, that number was down to 5,900, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the last decade, the number of unionized Mississippians has rarely reached 7% of the workforce.
“We older leaders, we need to engage with the younger leaders,” Scott said. “They’re not only leaders of tomorrow, they’re the leaders of today.”
The last major Mississippi union campaign at the Canton Nissan plant in 2017 failed. But less than a month after Morgan’s announcement at the Oxford Starbucks, workers in Hattiesburg held the first ever strike at a call center contracted by the federal government. They, too, are working to unionize.
In Mississippi, the unions that do exist include educators and teachers, the Teamster brotherhood, boilermakers, electrical workers, steelworkers, and communications workers from AT&T. Some of those unions are more in name than action. Their numbers are still small considering the workforce at large.
Morgan is now experiencing what those who have dedicated decades to mobilizing workers in Mississippi have long seen: workers aren’t often familiar with the concepts and abilities of unions and they’re terrified of losing their jobs or health insurance.
“It’s really hard to explain what a union is when there is no real concept of bottom-up organizing in Mississippi,” Morgan said. “The Nissan plant was a huge thing in the news, so a lot of the times that is brought up: It didn’t work there so why would it work here?”
The Nissan campaign targeted thousands of workers in a single plant. It had over a decade of work built up behind it. But come election day, workers voted 2,244-1,307 against the United Auto Workers.
Sanchioni Butler, a UAW organizer, spent a decade building support from clergy members to community leaders in addition to educating plant workers on unions.
“I learned that fear is real,” Butler said. “I’ve seen some of the strongest people fold because of the fear of losing what they have.”
Then-Gov. Phil Bryant and business leaders came out hard against union efforts at Nissan. It would hurt the company’s competitiveness, they said, in turn hurting its workers. A National Labor Relations Board complaint accused a plant supervisor of threatening workers with lost wages and a plant closure if a union came in — something Nissan denied.
Similar back-and-forth has played out between workers and management at the Maximus Federal office in Hattiesburg, where workers answer calls about Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.
“In order for workers in the South to win, they have to stand together and have courage,” Butler said. “Somebody has to take a stand. The organizer can’t do that. The workers are the ones who have the power to vote in their best interest.”
In its annual report on unions, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the national median weekly earnings of nonunion workers was about 83% of the wages of their union counterparts — $975 versus $1,169.
A recent study by Oxfam, a nonprofit that works to end poverty, found that 45% of Mississippians are earning under $15 an hour.
While the Maximus workers aren’t in a recognized union, they’ve still put pressure on the company with some results alongside other Maximus call center workers in Louisiana and members of Communications Workers of America. Maximus bumped wages up to $15 per hour before a presidential federal contractor order required it; the company lowered health insurance costs; and shareholders voted to have a third-party racial equity audit to examine the company’s impact on communities of color.
The workers — largely single mothers and women of color — are still pushing for higher wages that compare to the $55,000 salaries federal call center workers make at the Internal Revenue Service. Maximus also doesn’t offer every worker paid sick days.
While Starbucks touts investing in baristas’ pay, Morgan has yet to see an increase to $15 an hour in her paycheck. She said she and her coworkers are still around $12 with the promise it will eventually reach $15. Morgan says it’s unclear when that will happen.
A Starbucks spokesperson told Mississippi Today that $15 an hour for baristas will become the baseline starting wage this summer. The average wage, at that point, will be $17 nationwide, according to the chain.
Morgan would work at Starbucks full-time, but the store isn’t offering it. To ensure she brings home at least $600 every two weeks — just barely enough to cover her rent and other expenses — she works on a food delivery app.
“Different managers said different things,” Morgan said, referring to the hourly pay increases. “And it’s hard to hold any of them accountable.”
A union, she thinks, could mitigate issues like that.
Workers can either sign enough union cards to spur an election hosted by the National Labor Board or they can have a large enough number of cards signed that the election isn’t needed.
Neither the local Starbucks or Maximus workers are at that point yet — getting there has long been a challenge in Mississippi, especially.
“There was a conscious effort to erase unions, demonize unions, that goes back to the 40s and 50s,” said Roll, the UM professor. “And it all goes back to maintaining Mississippi’s cheap labor economy.”
That economic structure originated from Mississippi’s reliance on the free work of enslaved Black people and then their cheap work through tenant farming and sharecropping.
By the 1940s, white male Mississippians in grain processing, timber and other trade jobs did create influential unions. Hall said those gains were stomped out by politicians and business leaders with accusations of communism during the McCarthy era.
“There’s a history that they were here and they were successful that often gets overlooked,” Roll said. “And the suppression of those unions shows how much a threat they were seen as by employers and politicians.”
Morgan has been inspired by the work of former UM classmate, Jaz Brisack, who led the Buffalo Starbuck unionizing efforts. She isn’t sure she’d have found the confidence to begin organizing without Brisack.
Morgan’s manager, who workers say also made racist and sexist comments, was put on leave to be investigated. But Morgan said Starbucks ethics and compliance investigators didn’t call her to discuss what happened until after workers shared their letter about unionizing publicly.
Recently, Morgan was told the manager was fired. In a statement to Mississippi Today, Starbucks said it “separated” from the manager for “policy violations.”
Starbucks has consistently said it supports its workers’ right to unionize but thinks a union would come between them and their workers, which it prefers to call “partners.” It says it’s continuing to “listen and learn” from its stores.
Morgan said hours are still inconsistent for her and her coworkers. She has to stay at about 20 hours each week to hold onto her health insurance. Most weeks she’s lucky to hit 25.
“Not many jobs are going to support being trans in Mississippi,” Morgan said.
It’s not as simple as just quitting and finding something better — an option critics often jump to.
“We like working at Starbucks,” Morgan said. “That’s why we want to unionize. We care.”