Starbucks Is Facing a Wave of Worker Organizing — but So Are Its Local Competitors

Starbucks isn’t the only coffee shop whose workers are unionizing. Boston has seen a wave of organizing at independent coffee shops. The latest: 1369 Coffee House, whose workers recently filed for union recognition.

Independent coffee shops across the Boston area are unionizing with UNITE HERE. (Myles Tan / Flickr)

The wave of organizing at coffee shops across the United States isn’t slowing down. In the Boston metro area, it’s becoming hard to find a café that isn’t in the process of unionizing.

It isn’t just Starbucks, though at least four of the company’s Boston-area locations are unionizing. In the past year, the following independent coffee shops have also organized: Darwin’s Ltd, a café with four Cambridge locations; Pavement, a café with eight locations spread across Boston and Cambridge; Diesel Café, Bloc Café, and Forge Baking Company, which share ownership and are located in Somerville. All of those shops are organized with the New England Joint Board of UNITE HERE.

While the stores are small, the organizing constitutes a massive shift for the industry, where unionization was practically unthinkable just a few years ago.

Workers at 1369 Coffee House, which has two locations in Cambridge, are the latest to join the movement (full disclosure: I once worked at 1369, albeit briefly and many years ago). The business’s Central Square and Inman Square locations announced their campaign on Thursday, delivering a letter to owner Josh Gerber requesting voluntary recognition of the union.

“We’re really hopeful that our management will follow in the footsteps of the owners of Pavement and Darwin’s and voluntarily recognize the union,” says Sophie Zacharakis, a barista at 1369. “Honestly, it’s the right thing to do.”

Zacharakis began working at 1369 late last year. She says that while conversations about unionizing predated her tenure, the process escalated in recent months as workers, brought closer together thanks to understaffing, watched other independent cafés launch union campaigns.

“There’s been talk of unionizing for as long as I’ve been here,” says Lip Manegio, a barista who has worked at 1369 off and on since July of 2018. “But one of the big roadblocks was, ‘Well, how can we, as a few people, do anything? We don’t know how to negotiate a contract, we can’t afford legal support.’”

Upon reaching out to UNITE HERE, 1369’s workers were brought into conversation with workers at other independent cafés, clarifying the process of organizing a small shop. 1369’s workers say their bargaining unit is eighteen people. With a movement of other workers and a union backing them, questions of capacity are no longer a concern, and the conversation instead can focus on industry standards across the metro area.

While Starbucks workers are organizing with a different union, Starbucks Workers United — an affiliate of Workers United, which itself is an affiliate of SEIU — their campaign has helped 1369 workers, too, not least by providing a visible point of reference on which workers can draw when speaking with one another about organizing.

“As someone who used to work at Starbucks, it was super heartening to see that campaign start, because while Starbucks was never a great place to work, it had better benefits than most other places,” says Manegio. “Seeing workers with some of the best benefits in the industry still rightly insist that they deserve better is inspiring.”

The issues driving the 1369 campaign are a desire for more transparency in management and a livable wage. Starting pay at the company has been $13 an hour, though last month it was raised to $14.25 an hour, which is the state minimum wage for non-tipped employees.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” says Manegio. “But even the best management is still management, and having support and structure and accountability, the things a union can provide, is important. Every workplace can be better through a union.”

While some may still see café work as temporary, a stepping-stone on the way to a “real job,” 1369’s workers emphasize that their work is little different than that of anyone else.

“I should be able to make a career out of this if that’s what I want, and to live comfortably and even retire with that job,” says Manegio. “It’s still labor, it’s still work, and we all deserve to have our labor fairly valued.”

If 1369’s management declines to voluntarily recognize the union by May 3, workers will file for a National Labor Relations Board election the following day. They say that a majority of the staff has signed cards, and that tips have been way up since they went public with the union.