ALCOA, Tenn. — Some of the workers at a Starbucks near Alcoa Highway and McGhee Tyson Airport are on strike after they said the company tried to stop them from organizing as a labor union.
"Many of the things that have happened to us recently, are part of Starbucks as a union-busting campaign," said Maxwell Nutter, an employee at the store.
He and others who work for Starbucks are members of Starbucks Workers United, a labor union in the U.S. Nutter and the other protestors claim that Starbucks' corporate team is not cooperating with the union. He also said many feel like they faced retaliation for organizing a union.
"Many of our pro-union employees feel like they have been specifically targeted for hour cuts," he said. "And many of them have been discouraged from even participating in union activism."
Stephanie Holyfield, a historian at Lincoln Memorial University, said labor unions have played a major role in U.S. history. They were a product of a time when workers faced extreme dangers in factories, when they worked for pennies compared to the wealth of Gilded Age company owners, and when workers had no choice but to spend their earnings in company towns.
"Organized labor unions actually started in the 1860s had to do primarily with three things, safety, hours, and wages," said Holyfield.
Several recent studies show there has been an increase in support for labor unions, and more young people like at Starbucks in Alcoa are getting involved.
"Now, there's a new wave of organizing that's happening," said June Rostan, with the Knoxville Area Central Labor Council. "It's very inspiring."
She said the new wave of organized unions is likely related to shifts in the U.S. economy such as growing income inequality, debt, languishing worker wages and rising prices.
"Wages have not kept pace with expenses," said Holyfield.
In the meantime, organized labor activists said they plan to continue pushing for change. Despite the increase in support for unions, data also shows that just over 10% of workers are members of unions. In 1983, it was around 20%.
"We want working conditions to be better for their workers," said Nutter.