In Gravy’s “Memphis Restaurant Workers Unite” episode, producer Sarah Holtz follows a group of restaurant workers that’s slated to become the first formal union of food and beverage workers in Memphis, Tennessee. Led by Lily Nicholson, the group, Memphis Restaurant Workers United (MRWU), organized a petition that resulted in $2.5 million in pandemic support grants from the county government and has begun negotiating contracts with local restaurants so that workers can make a living wage with benefits. 

Labor unions hold special meaning in Memphis, the city where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated—at the time of his death, Dr. King was in town to support striking sanitation workers. A labor union is a formal group of workers who use collective bargaining power to negotiate better working conditions and benefits. In forming MRWU, organizers are up against decades of hostility, as Tennessee is a right-to-work state. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 claimed to protect American workers from being forced to unionize, but in reality, it made it difficult for workers to collectively bargain for better conditions. With support from community leaders, members are fighting back against rampant restaurant industry abuses, such as wage theft.

At the average restaurant in Memphis, the front of house staff will be majority white, while the back of the house will be predominantly made up of immigrant workers and workers of color. This unsettling trace of Memphis’s segregated past reflects a larger structural issue in the industry. Part of MRWU’s challenge is to make sure that the union is as diverse as the city. 

Reporter Sarah Holtz talks to Lily Nicholson, Allan Creasy, and Zach Barnard, restaurant veterans and organizers of Memphis Restaurant Workers United, all about the working conditions that led them to form the union and the process entailed. She also speaks with Jeffrey Lichtenstein of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest federation of unions, who helped get MRWU off the ground; and Victoria Terry, who works with the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group of African American trade unionists. Holtz attends an MRWU meeting at RP Tracks, a Memphis bar and restaurant that supports the efforts of MRWU.  

Sarah Holtz is a reporter and producer based between Oakland and New Orleans. Her work has aired on Houston Public Media, New Orleans Public Radio, Northern California Public Media, and elsewhere. She received training in audio and writing at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

Thanks to Hannah Grabenstein for help with this episode.

Featured music:
“Singing in Many Voices” by Marisa Anderson
“A Dream of Willie McTell” by Marisa Anderson
“Feel Good” by Broke for Free
“Electricity” by Marisa Anderson
“Resurrection” by Marisa Anderson
“Pulse” by Marisa Anderson

Image courtesy of Memphis Restaurant Workers United.