On Wednesday, December 22, workers at Coffee Tree Roasters’ five Pittsburgh-area locations — Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Mount Lebanon, Fox Chapel, and Pleasant Hills — announced their intention to unionize.
An election filing with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) counts fifty-two workers as part of the unit, which encompasses baristas across the locations (the union does not include the company’s roastery and distribution employees). In a video announcing the campaign, workers spoke of their desire for electronic tips, paid time and a half for employees who work on holidays, paid sick leave, and better staffing and COVID precautions.
The day after the video was released, Coffee Tree fired Liam Tinker, a barista at the Squirrel Hill location who appears in the video.
“Liam was late to work and was immediately taken out of all the systems, but other employees have been just as late as Liam without being fired — usually they either get a write up or nothing at all happens,” says Jordy Vargas, a barista at the Shadyside location.
Workers see the firing as straightforwardly retaliatory. United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1776, with whom the Coffee Tree workers are organizing and which represents some thirty-five thousand members across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, and Ohio, has filed an unfair labor practice (ULP) charge with the NLRB.
“It’s disheartening to see such immediate and severe retribution against me and the Coffee Tree Union, but retaliation will just strengthen our resolve,” said Tinker in a statement released by UFCW Local 1776. “This is yet another example of why we are forming a union to fight for job security, better working conditions, and respect from company ownership.”
“While we’re very disappointed that Coffee Tree management has decided to attack their workers instead of working with them to bargain, we know that these workers have the courage to stand up against bullying and retaliation,” said Local 1776 president Wendell Young IV.
Under the National Labor Relations Act it is illegal to fire, discipline, or threaten workers for engaging in protected concerted activity, but employers are charged with violating federal law in 41.5 percent of union campaigns. They face few penalties for doing so — this is one of many things that the stalled PRO Act, the labor law reform bill nominally supported by the Biden administration, would change. Should Coffee Tree be found to have illegally fired Tinker, it would have to reinstate him as well as shell out back pay. But, importantly, any wages earned at another job a worker might get in the meantime to stay afloat count against that pay, i.e., if Tinker were to get a comparable job tomorrow, the wage penalty for Coffee Tree would be miniscule.
At present, there are very few unionized coffee shops in the United States, yet a movement is on to change that. Most prominently, workers at three Buffalo, New York Starbucks locations held NLRB elections earlier this year. Despite an aggressive anti-union campaign by management that included bringing Starbucks founder Howard Schultz to Buffalo to give a bizarre speech to workers, the campaign resulted in the first unionized Starbucks in the United States earlier this month. Momentum is growing: workers at Starbucks locations in four more cities have followed Buffalo’s lead, filing for NLRB elections. Plus, there’s a wave of organizing at cafes across the Boston area.
Perhaps the best comparison to the Coffee Tree campaign is that of Colectivo Coffee, where workers voted to unionize with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in August of this year. While the Colectivo union encompasses around four hundred workers, significantly larger than the Coffee Tree union, the strategy for regional organizing across several smaller coffee shops may look similar. Should the parallels extend to management’s response, the Coffee Tree workers may be in for a real fight. Indeed, Pittsburgh coffee shop owners in recent years have not been shy about shuttering locations entirely in response to any hint of worker organizing.
For now, the Coffee Tree workers are optimistic, noting the support they’ve gotten from community members, other unions, and elected officials alike. The Allegheny-Fayette central labor council says it has called Coffee Tree to express displeasure with Tinker’s firing, tweeting that “this does not fly in Western PA. We’re ready to take action & will have all of our elected allies standing with us.” Pittsburgh’s incoming mayor Ed Gainey released a statement in support of the effort, calling on Coffee Tree management to “negotiate in good faith, adhere to the practices set forth by the National Labor Relations Board, allow workers a free and fair election to form a union, and reinstate any employees who have been terminated in relation to their support of unionization efforts.”
Vargas, the barista at Coffee Tree’s Shadyside location, was the one to reach out to UFCW over the summer about unionizing. In explaining what led him to do so, he spoke of frustration with an industry built on high turnover, which keeps workers moving from one job to the next.
“I thought to myself, I don’t feel like going from job to job, recognizing that things could be better here, I could be paid more, rather than going to another job and potentially feeling the same things,” he says. In the era of the “Great Resignation,” many workers have been experiencing precisely this dilemma: they may find a slightly higher-paying job, but the problems that led them to leave their old employer remain at the new one, thorny issues like mandatory overtime, last-minute scheduling, lackluster health and safety precautions, few of which can be fought by an individual employee.
“I’m hoping that this union shows people that it doesn’t matter what job you do or how old you are, you deserve to make a living wage,” says Vargas. “We don’t have to just take the bad that comes with a job because it’s been societally placed on us that we have to suck it up. All we’re doing is asking for a fair and equal workplace, and we want it in writing.”
As for the dearth of unions in the coffee industry, Vargas emphasizes that he hopes the Coffee Tree union will add to the momentum of organizing in the service sector, offering a rebuke to employers’ insistence that the solution to unlivable wages is for workers to find additional jobs.
“The labor movement is not just for people who have full-time or nine-to-five jobs. Our circumstances are different, but we’re all struggling under capitalism, in which companies are used to giving us the minimum wage and telling us that we can just get more jobs if we need to make ends meet,” he says. “I hope that this shows people that we should be staying strong together, no matter what sector.”