KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Labor union organizing in East Tennessee dates back to the nineteenth century. At the time, workers in factories and mines demanded better pay, safer workplaces and job security.
Fast forward more than a century and those now known as "essential workers" of the COVID-19 pandemic have similar demands.
"You're putting your health on the line for a company, and are they showing up for you as they're calling you essential? Not really," said Maggie Carter, a barista at Starbucks on Merchants Drive in Knoxville.
Carter began working for Starbucks three years ago.
"We love our job," Carter said, referring to herself and her colleagues. "We love coming in here and seeing our regulars every single day. We memorize their drinks, we know their families, we talk to their children."
Carter said it was her love for the job that led her to take action.
Six months ago, the Merchants Drive Starbucks location became the first one in the South to form a union.
"My store had [its] election on March 29 and we were certified on April 4. We were the ninth store out of now over 250 who have unionized," Carter explained.
Since then, workers' efforts to unionize have continued to grow across East Tennessee.
This comes as voters in the midterm election are tasked with deciding whether or not to codify Tennessee's right-to-work law. If approved, the first proposed amendment on the ballot would enshrine the law in the state constitution.
Republican lawmakers, including Gov. Bill Lee, are in favor of adding right-to-work to the constitution. Labor organizers are against it.
Aaron Hege and Margaret Casteel are two of the roughly 50 employees at McKay's Bookstore on Papermill Place Way.
"What we want is what everyone sees in the store of McKay's," Hege said. "Knoxville loves McKay's, and I think the reason for that is because of us, the workers there."
He and Casteel said as the business has grown over the years, benefits and wages for workers have remained stagnant. They claimed arbitrary firings, long hours and unfair schedules are only some of the problems.
"With how successful the business is, it just kind of boggles my mind," Hege continued.
"We love our jobs, we love our customers, but that comes at a sacrifice," Casteel added. "A union is the only way to have a voice, and not only have a voice but have the power to make changes."
They are now leading the effort to unionize at McKay's, demanding transparency and respect from managers and owners. WBIR reached out to McKay's owners but did not hear back.
On Tuesday, their work resulted in forming a union with the Communications Workers of America. Their vote was tallied and 82.6% of votes were cast in favor of unionizing.
At Three Rivers Market on Central Street, efforts to unionize quickly came to fruition. Workers began the process in April of last year by filing for an election petition. Within 45 days, management at Three Rivers voluntarily recognized employees' efforts to unionize.
Andreas Bastias said he has thought of unionizing since he began working at the food co-op more than eight years ago.
"I think around the time of the pandemic, there was sort of a critical mass of people that were ready to do the work to make it happen," Bastias explained.
To workers at McKay's, success stories like those at Three Rivers and Starbucks have been a source of inspiration.
"It's really beautiful to see it show up in East Tennessee," Carter said, referring to recent efforts to unionize across the country. "When we filed in December of last year, we had no idea about the rich labor history that exists within East Tennessee and the Appalachian community. Being able to immerse ourselves into that and really see what that solidarity has been like in East Tennessee for so long has really fueled our fight even further."