Is there change brewing for workers in the coffee industry?
We are at a major turning point when it comes to labor in the US. Workers are fed up with low-wage jobs and unfair, unsafe treatment by employers. Since the onset of the pandemic, it has become clear that employers are willing to put the lives of both employees and the public at risk in order to turn a profit, and people are unwilling to stand for it any longer.
One possible solution that many workers are now turning to, especially in the coffee industry, is the organization of workers unions.
What is a union?
At its core, a union is simply an organized group of workers. These workers come together to make decisions about their working conditions, which are then presented to management. This is a process known as collective bargaining. Strategically, making demands as a group is more effective than as an individual. Through collective bargaining, workers are able to have demands met that may be difficult or even impossible in an individually based scenario.
There are, however, multiple processes involved in a union becoming officially recognized. Aiden Graham, Campaigns Manager and Field Director for North Carolina State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (NC AFL-CIO) explains the steps required in order to gain successful union recognition:
“For a union to be officially recognized, they have to pass two tests. One is demonstrating the majority of the workers wanting a union, either through signing cards and voluntary recognition by the employer or an election, and then successfully negotiating a first contract.”
Graham goes on to explain that there is a timeline of one year to successfully negotiate a first contract after the first union meeting. Until that contract is negotiated, the union is still not official.
Why is union organization important?
In many places, particularly in the US, a lot of the protections and benefits that workers enjoy are the result of union efforts. For example, overtime pay, along with a standard eight hour work day, have been the outcome of union bargaining. Even weekends are a development of collective bargaining. Workers are not the first priority of an employer— their profits are.
As an organization, labor unions can also provide workers with a formal and legally enforceable voice, and leverage to advocate for themselves in the workplace. It’s important that people are paid well for their time and labor. It’s also important that when people show up to work, it’s in an environment with safe working conditions. Labor unions can help workers organize and create a list of demands to negotiate in order to improve things like pay and working conditions. If concessions aren’t made, unionized workers can also strike, or stop work until a negotiation is reached.
As the pandemic has highlighted, service industry workers are at a particularly high-risk level. This is especially true for a job like a coffee shop. Not only are they high-volume, but it’s also a place where most customer interactions are face to face. The fact is, it’s a health risk to work during a pandemic. Unions can be a powerful tool in organizing for workers rights.
Without a labor force, businesses would cease to exist. Therefore, it is important that workers are valued as a vital resource. With the ability to collectively bargain and strike, unionized workers are able to make it loud and clear that they hold the power that drives our businesses and our economy at large - and they’re able to make their voices heard.
Unionization in cafes
Cafe workers have faced issues in the workplace for a long time, though unionization has historically been low in the sector. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (1), the food and beverage service industry has one of the lowest rates of unionization at about 1.2 percent.
As workplace issues have become exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, however, workers are realizing the benefits that unionization can offer.
Recently, workers of Midwest based Colectivo (2) have made history by forming the country's largest union of cafe workers, with about 400 unionized employees. Though their efforts were challenged by management for over a year, the National Labor Relations Board announced that pro-union employees would be able to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).
Prior to workers of Colectivo unionizing, Buffalo, N.Y. based SPoT coffee (3) had previously been the largest group of organized coffee service workers. Starting with only 12 members, the SPoT union grew quickly to 130 members in locations across New York.
What do unionized employees stand to gain?
As a unified body of workers, unions can ensure that workers' voices are not lost. In addition to advocating for higher wages, labor unions can impact things such as employee benefits, workplace health and safety, and many other work-related issues.
The ability to bargain as a collective is powerful— it can be much more difficult for employers to reject the demands of a group than an individual, and is a huge benefit to unionization. As a group, a union has more impact in negotiations than their non-unionized counterparts. Workers who are a part of a union also earn more money on average. As far as rate of pay (4), nonunion members average a weekly earning rate that’s about 84 percent of what a unionized worker makes.
Unionized workers are also more likely to keep their job long-term. As part of a union, a worker may not be fired (5) without a concrete and valid reason, enhancing job security. An employer must prove the reason for firing a union employee before doing so.
While there are certainly many benefits to unionization, there are just as many obstacles.
Avoiding contract negotiations
One obstacle unions face is employers who create roadblocks to contract negotiation. Employers are required by law (6) to negotiate in good faith with unions that represent the demands of employees. However, it can be difficult to hold companies accountable when it comes to good faith negotiations.
Graham explains that many unions who win their first election are not able to negotiate a first contract. He goes on to say that holding off on contract negotiations are “..tactics by employers to try to avoid bargaining. Right now, there’s no requirement that the employer has to settle a first contract.”
But, things may be changing.
A bill called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act or ProAct (7), aims to target the loopholes in current labor law at the federal level, including making it harder for employers to prevent the negotiation of a first contract, and requires arbitration. Graham does say, however, that it is possible “the ProAct could change and could say. . . if the company is not bargaining in good faith. . . arbitration could be a last measure that the union could use to get that first contract.”
How “right-to-work” states obstruct unionization efforts
Another obstacle is the rise of so-called “right-to-work” states. Historically, right-to-work laws (8) came about in the United States with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.
This act allowed for union shops, or shops that require their workers to join a union after being hired, but outlawed closed shops, which only hire union workers. However, there was an exception in the Taft-Hartley Act which allowed states to supersede the federal law by encouraging the passage of state right-to-work laws.
Basically, in a right-to-work state, workers cannot be forced to unionize, and legislation exists so that unions cannot force strikes on workers. Those who do not wish to join a union cannot be forced to pay union dues. These laws benefit employers, and can seriously hinder workers' abilities to collectively bargain for better employment and labor conditions.
One common misperception is that workers living in a right-to-work state don’t have an ability to unionize. This, however, isn’t true. Graham explains that a “right to form a union is basically a constitutionally protected right. Freedom to assemble is laid out in the Constitution.”
There is often confusion, though, and especially in North Carolina. Graham continues, stating that “part of the confusion, especially when it comes to North Carolina, is a separate law, General Statute 9598. It was passed around the same time as right-to-work laws, and there are only two or three states in the US that still have this law on the books.”
He explains that this law prohibits public sector workers from having a collective bargaining agreement— they can unionize, but they cannot have a contract. Union membership in North Carolina is on the rise, however. As of 2020, North Carolina had an approximate 128,000 (9) employees who were part of a union.
Another major obstacle to unionization is union busting. Union busting is an umbrella term for a range of activities that are meant to prevent or disrupt union formation and activities in the workplace.
Recently, Starbucks employees (10) in Buffalo, N.Y. have begun the process of unionization with Workers United. The movement is also spreading (11) to other Starbucks locations across the country. If successful, this would be an historic first for U.S. employees of the corporate giant. However, there have already been attempts at disrupting the vote for unionization. Starbucks Workers United have stated that the company is "engaging in a campaign of threats, intimidation, surveillance, solicitation of grievances, and the closing of facilities".
Another example of union busting in the coffee sector is with Los Angeles based Augie’s (12). Shortly after learning of employees’ plans to try and unionize, management decided in July of 2020 to shut down stores and 54 employees were laid off. Augie’s management publicly cited COVID-19 fears as the reason for the closures, however after a nearly six-month investigation by the National Labor Relations Board, a ruling was formally announced in December, 2020 that the lay-offs were done illegally in retaliation to union efforts.
Tactics for union busting vary, but they have one clear goal in mind— stop union organizing at all costs. One particularly insidious tactic is that of intelligence operations. Typically, an employer will hire an informant to report on union meetings. Though this tactic has been deemed in violation of the Wagner Act as an unfair labor practice, it can be hard to prove. Because of the difficulty to prove the use of this tactic, it’s one that is still used in union busting efforts today.
Though union efforts on the storefront side of the industry are relatively new, there is a history of unionization in other parts of the coffee industry.
One of the long standing coffee farmer’s unions is that of Oromia Coffee Union. Known as the birthplace of coffee, the Oromia region of Ethiopia is home to the Oromo people. The Oromo people have been using coffee since the beginning of the fifth century, not only as a beverage, but also as a trade item, a tool for peace keeping, and for spiritual nourishment.
The Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union is a farmer owned cooperative union which organized itself in June of 1999. Sourcing only coffee from the region, the OCFCU exports fair trade, traceable and organic coffee.
The fair trade premium earned is invested in local social projects, like schools and improving access to drinking water. The union has also recently opened its own bank, and is now able to provide much needed services to area coffee farmers. In addition to providing loans, they also offer crop insurance— a major benefit to farmers, especially as coffee production is being affected by climate change.
The Oromia Coffee Union is a great example of how unionization can be of benefit to employees. Working with the union, farmers have help and support from an organized body, allowing them access to many benefits that may not have been possible without the union.
How to support the labor movement in coffee
There are a range of ways that coffee consumers can support unions within the industry. Graham suggests that “first and foremost is to follow the lead of the workers.” He goes on to describe how “union work is inherently risky. . . people are putting a lot at risk, and it’s important that things stay quiet, and sometimes for quite a while until workers are organized enough to withstand any pushback from employers.”
Explaining how, often, the rules are rigged in favor of corporations and business owners, Graham continues: “A lot of times, managers will just fire people. Even though, legally, they aren’t allowed to do that, they’ll do a cost/benefit analysis, and are sometimes just willing to risk it.”
He doesn’t want people to feel discouraged from organizing, however, and he’s hopeful about the future of the labor movement as there are a lot of resources available.
For those new to organizing, Graham suggests the website Labor Notes as a great beginner resource. They offer a lot of resources and materials about organizing, with around 40 years of movement organizing experience.
As more within the coffee industry become fed up and unwilling to settle for poor treatment, changes can start to come about, but only with some significant organization. Graham suggests that “we need pretty substantial labor law reform (in the US) to start going in the right direction.” The process for law reform can be long and drawn out, though.
He offers one other suggestion, however:
“The other thing that we need is workers organizing, anywhere and everywhere they can.”