Beyond Starbucks: The Unionization

Will the Push to Unionize Small Local Coffee Shops in Philly Signal the Death Knell of the Neighborhood Cafe?

Lily Fender, a union representative at Local 80 of Workers United, was inspired by the fight for racial equality and workers’ rights in Philadelphia during the pandemic. She began canvassing for Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire while on unemployment as a seasonal landscaper. The pandemic led to the rise of Democrats supporting Biden, and Fender decided to focus on the labor world instead.

In 2021, Fender took a job at Korshak Bagels, a South Philly bakery that had recently opened to fanfare with its $3 bagels and $16 wages. Four months into its brick-and-mortar operation, his employees voted to unionize. Fender joined the union while they were drafting articles, building out a democratic structure, and bargaining over a contract.

The new generation of Gen Z workers have a different attitude towards work than previous generations, and they don’t want to be told what they do. Fender joined the union full-time after their workplace closed, the first to organize under Local 80. The union focuses on valuing workers who are invested in coffee as a career and valuing their work as a profession, not as a stopover, burnout job.

Despite the closure of Korshak Bagels, Local 80 has hardly slowed down. In the past four months, the union has struck two hard-fought contracts with independently-owned coffee shops, Elixr and ReAnimator, after their workers threatened to strike. Those contracts have provided a total of 52 employees with terms that include across-the-board raises, systematized PTO, and cost-of-living adjustments that will exceed inflation going forward. Negotiations are ongoing with at least two more roasters.

However, the rise of small coffee-shop unions will be a difficult thing for many Philadelphians to embrace. Coffee shops are low-margin businesses that welcome diverse groups of people to work, relax, and connect with others while bringing texture and community to their neighborhoods. Most of them are owned by entrepreneurs invested in their city, hire workers from the surrounding area, and often support other small businesses by selling their products or offering their space for events.

Another hurdle is the seeming gains of some baristas have come at the cost of other workers, who have lost jobs, sometimes as a result of the economic pressures of a union contract or before one can be worked out. Good Karma temporarily closed two out of four locations after the union formed, only to reopen following the vote to decertify.

So far, the mixed results of Local 80 show the risks of imparting a national fight against big corporate capitalism to the local reality of small entrepreneurship.

Critics of the coffee industry are concerned about a fundamental shift in culture and economics, which could lead to a negative change for independent coffee shops. The coffee industry is known for its individualism and celebration of the individual, but the coffee industry is also facing challenges from larger companies like Starbucks.

Local 80’s recent wins are a result of its union’s ongoing fight with Starbucks, which has prevented a single union contract from being reached. Contracts reached with smaller purveyors, such as ReAnimator or Elixr, help establish realistic contract terms in an industry that has traditionally lacked union participation. Local 80 has found itself negotiating with the same lawyers in different union pushes, and they are now aware of what to expect with that law firm.

However, not all baristas see greener pastures in a union. The workers at Good Karma unionized last year, only to see support among their membership dwindle. After two out of the company’s four locations shuttered during contract negotiations, a subset of employees triggered a vote of decertification, which ended with a 6-to-4 vote in September that removed Local 80 and effectively ended their pursuit of a contract.

Camponeschi, a barista at Good Karma, was principally concerned with losing his job as a result of the union. He received free legal help from the National Right to Work Foundation, which is anti-labor, in the decertification process. Camponeschi is bucking a trend of rising union support among young workers, who have a different attitude towards work than previous generations.

The national decline in union participation since the 1970s coincided with the economy’s shift away from industrial and towards service-based work. However, the pandemic offered “a perfect storm” for labor, with tough conditions for frontline workers stoking public support for unions, which ballooned during the pandemic up to 62%. President Biden’s progressive appointments on the National Labor Relations Board created pro-union conditions unseen in decades, and a tight labor market with lower unemployment shifted some power to organized workers.

Labor historians warn that these trends could be fleeting, as a change of party in the White House could slow union recognition, as well as an increasingly employer-friendly labor market exiting the pandemic. Despite recent events, less than 2 percent of all food service workers are unionized, one of the lowest numbers across all sectors of work.

One solution Clark suggests is a mutual commitment from owners and workers that in exchange for better pay and benefits, employees will prioritize making the company more efficient and profitable. In the meantime, the push for better working conditions threatens sacrificing one set of community-minded ideals for another.

After the decertification vote at Good Karma, the workers got a raise, along with other new benefits. A contract failed to materialize, but the fight still resulted in a win for workers, as everyone got a raise, from the new barista to the assistant manager.

Read More @ The Philadelphia Citizen

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