Labor organizing in the Boston area has gotten a hip makeover. Two local coffee shop chains, Pavement & Darwin’s Ltd., have had their employees vote to form unions.
These baristas have been the unlikely stars of the progressive left in Boston this past summer: The media exploded after the news hit of Pavement UNITED’s efforts, while then-candidate and Councilor and now-Mayor-elect Michelle Wu promoted their cause as part of her campaign.
Pavement UNITED and Darwin’s UNITED are both affiliate members of UNITE HERE New England Joint Board. The board has been a longstanding union in the Boston area through multiple mergers, labor trends, and leadership changes, rising from the remnants of needleworkers and most recently hotel workers. Lost in their efforts have been most food workers who serve you at restaurants and cafes, so much so that it has become a trope: the wayward barista or bartender, hopping from job to job with a restrained snarl and only gaining a higher tolerance for caffeine, alcohol, and tattoo ink while lacking substantial savings or, God forbid, a retirement plan.
Yet what would seem like a sensible marriage, city-dwelling hipsters and unions, had been largely estranged in these parts until recently.
Jude, a Pavement employee and a lead negotiator for the Pavement UNITED union (who chose not to give a last name) said, “Me and one of my former co-workers talked about unionizing. We talked to a couple of other people from different stores, and that is when I went and met with Mitch at UNITE HERE.”
Jude added, “I don’t think any of us knew what the union was going to do or how big it was going to be. When I first initially met with Mitch, I thought I was going to pick up paperwork, and I walk in this building and I am sitting across a conference room table across from three guys in suits and ties.”
In Pavement UNITED’s case, the catalyst for the union was multifold. Leaders of the Pavement union claim that managers were lied to and misled at worst, or victims of terrible interoffice miscommunications at best. They also experienced a general lack of accountability on behalf of the managers who members of the union claim made racist and misogynist comments.
It took better communication among the staff and lower-level managers of various locations to put the pieces together of where owners and managers were failing their employees. Once they were able to share similar experiences and air their grievances, organizing together became the next logical step.
Food service is an industry with a notoriously high turnover rate. To people in the industry, this is not a bug, but a feature known for its transient employees and negligent managers. Yet the precarity of the pandemic has forced workers to band together to demand better rights and treatment.
Can unions take care of the high turnover problem? Mitch Fallon of UNITE HERE seems to think so.
“I think the high turnover in the industry is really just a factor of the status quo where you are mistreated at work and really the only option that you have is to quit and move on to something else. … With the union, you have the protection, you have the collective power to make the changes you want to see.”
Food industry work is also criminally underpaid: The hours are long, the customers are annoying, and you end the week barely scraping by. But when food service workers unionize, they can bargain for better wages, safer working conditions, better health insurance benefits, and more.
Larry Margulies, the Pavement owner and CEO, was not available for comment due to ongoing negotiations but penned an open letter for GBH in the wake of the announcement of Pavement UNITED’s organizing efforts.
Pavement UNITED has already inspired other coffee shops to unionize. Employees of Darwin’s Ltd., a Cambridge-based cafe chain, have already voted to unionize their four stores with owner Steve Darwin voluntarily recognizing the union.
“A handful of people have been really enthusiastic and have poured themselves into organizing as well,” said Jordan Coleman, a Darwin’s Ltd. employee and Darwin’s UNITED organizer. “It wasn’t just support, but also enthusiasm and a desire to organize together.”
Coleman continued, “I think one thing about Darwin’s right now is that there’s not a lot of interface between people who make decisions, being the ownership and the top levels of management, and the people who do the work based on those decisions every day.”
Could this be the beginning of a transparency push at the workplace? A check on the autocratic rule of the small business owner? That is surely on the negotiating table for both Pavement and Darwin’s UNITED.
“Workers often don’t realize, because of the purposeful precarity they’re put in financially and in terms of worrying about whether they will be fired for cause or not … they can advocate for themselves,” Coleman concludes.
A clear limit to both unionizing efforts is that their coffee supply chains are not unionized. That would be a tall task for organizers already stretched thin between their jobs and current unionizing efforts. But it is a worthy next step because for a workplace to be fully unionized and equal, the full supply lines ought to have a chance to choose to unionize as well.
In the meantime, unionizing the workers at coffee shops is a logical step toward the overall goal of unionizing supply chains. You can even ask my Trump-supporting dad if you should support unions; he’ll say yes.
And he is backed up by a recent study done by Randy Albelda, Michael Carr, and Brian Fitzpatrick of Umass Boston’s Labor Resource Center and Economics Department, which estimated that union workers in Mass earned 8.2% more than their nonunion counterparts, among many other benefits.
Yet looking nationally, while the broad categorization by the Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers people working in restaurants at around 12 million, only around 1.3% of these workers are unionized, tied for last with the finance sector for the lowest unionization rate of any sector, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. These numbers haven’t changed in the last 20 years.
One of the most logical next steps is for food service workers to continue their push for unions, better wages, and benefits. But as Darwin’s UNITED and Pavement UNITED have shown, as well as SPoT and Gimme! Coffee in upstate New York, and three Buffalo-based Starbucks stores, the workers need to take it on themselves to form unions. (Colectivo Coffee’s workers, a Milwaukee-based coffee chain, also recently voted to unionize.)
“Being represented by a union, even after controlling for a large host of worker characteristics and the industries workers work in, boost wages, improve the chance of receiving employer benefits, and increase family income,” according to the authors of the UMass Boston study. “Unions provide the mechanisms for workers to bargain for what they need to keep their families out of poverty, reducing the need for government support.”
Having worked at numerous cafes myself—including Starbucks, Pavement, and Darwins—and having known many people who have worked at both places, the pay rate, the reliability of work, and workplace transparency are all major issues that need to be addressed. They need to be addressed not only in Pavement and Darwin’s but all food service establishments; unions effectively streamline this process.
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Chris Hues is a human & writer from Boston, Ma. Follow them on twitter and instagram @chrishues_