Even Workers at Small, Independent Coffee Shops Are Unionizing. We Spoke to Some.

No one expected a union organizing upsurge at Starbucks, but a year ago, one started. That union interest is spreading, including to small coffee shops like Brooklyn’s Daily Press. We talked to several workers there who recently voted unanimously to unionize.

Workers at the Daily Press, an independent coffee shop and bar in Brooklyn, New York, recently filed to unionize with Workers United. (raquel arocena torres / Getty Images)

Interview by
Hadas Thier

On November 1, eleven workers at the Daily Press, an independent coffee shop and bar in Brooklyn, New York, filed to unionize with Workers United (WU). Their organizing was touched off by a sudden and drastic cut in hours and threat of layoffs by the café’s owner in mid-October. Within a week and a half, workers unanimously filed with Workers United, the parent union of Starbucks Workers United. They are WU’s first independent coffee shop to organize with the union.

An uptick in organizing at small shops like the Daily Press won’t be enough to reverse labor’s long-standing decline. But the interest in unionization at workplaces that historically have not been organized is an indicator of a rising sense among some portions of the American workforce that unions are a solution to the problems they’re facing at work. Hadas Thier sat down with three of the organizers to talk about why and how they did it. Gabe Caldwell is a bartender who has been working at Daily Press since October 2020. Tomás Laster has been a bartender at Daily Press since June 2022. Amber Crabb has been a barista at Daily Press since April 2022.

Hadas Thier

What led you all to decide to unionize?

Gabe Caldwell

The initial impetus was that the owner decided to cut operating hours in the evenings. That was incredibly devastating for the bartenders especially but also for the baristas whose hours were going to be cut as well. We’re not gonna be able to pay rent.

The announcement came out on October 14, and the hour cuts and layoffs were going to go into effect October 16. All eleven of us did not accept this. We did not want our hours cut; we did not want the terminations.

So, on October 17, we were able to get ownership into the room. We sat down in the café in a circle, and we told them that this place is really important to us; we told them that this place was a community spot that we built and also that we had a particular debt to the people who kept it alive, who come through every single day and buy their coffee or beer, come in for open mic or poetry, come in for football night. These were all things that were going really well. To cut all that off without warning was disrespectful, and also incredibly harmful, because we’re not going to be able to pay rent.

The owner’s initial response to that was: this is a business, it’s hard to make business choices, sometimes businesspeople have to make hard business choices, and can’t you understand my position?

He’s talking about managing a portfolio of thousands of dollars and has more resources than we do. I can only imagine what it’s like to be scared about being $50,000 or $100,000 in debt. We went to college; we know what that’s like, so I can only imagine. But what I don’t need to imagine is what it’s like to literally not be able to pay rent or be hungry or get ready to be evicted. This is me, these are my friends, these are people in my community. We’re all feeling this stuff. And now, we’re talking about the economy getting worse and a recession and an inflationary crisis and an impending eviction crisis — a lot of things that are going to affect the bottom echelon of folks.

So, for him to make these choices, to say, “You’re going to have to suffer because I’m scared of being in debt” — we cannot tolerate it.

Tomás Laster

The people who were hit hardest and fastest were the bartenders. But there has been an incredible amount of solidarity and mutual support among everyone. None of the baristas said, “That sucks for you guys, but that’s your problem.” We’re all here, in it together.

My coworker, Hannah, on October 14 was expecting to work four shifts the following week. Then, suddenly, she was working one. So that was a real moment of despair. That’s what really brought us together three days after that, when we met with the owners.

Meeting with the owner was a big win for us, because we got him to agree to reverse those initial two weeks of cuts. That bought us time.

But it was really tough. We sat there with the owner, and we all went around, it was very amicable. We wanted to talk face-to-face and explain the situation that we’re in. What everyone focused on was just how much they care about this place and how much they care about what it means for the community, how much work we put into making this place what it is.

Our coworker KK is from this neighborhood. He’s seen how much this place has meant to the community. When he spoke, it made some of us tear up. It was really rough seeing how after all of that, the owner sat there and listened to all of us talking about how much we care about the space — it was a lot of love — and he responded coldly: “It’s great to hear you guys care about that, but I gotta make these choices.” It was tough seeing the care that we were showing for this place and for one another was not being returned in any capacity.

Gabe Caldwell

After a long conversation with the owner, we were able to convince him to restore the original operating hours until the end of October, and he agreed not to fire anybody. He agreed to work together with us to figure out a new way to operate the store that didn’t involve cutting hours or layoffs.

So, we came together and drew up new plans to run the space, to manage inventory, to handle ordering and our accounting based on the numbers that he provided.

I study economics at John Jay College, and I was able to take a look at some of the numbers that he had provided. Things were formatted incorrectly, which gave the appearance that you’re bleeding cash when you literally aren’t. Correcting that was a lot of work. I was up for forty-eight hours, and I fixed it and proved that we were on track to make money. Sure enough, we made a profit, and as October went on, those margins actually kept on increasing. We had an initial goal of a $4,000 target to hit by the end of the month — we blew past that by $5,000.

Beyond that, if we actually want to manage the finances in this space appropriately, we need a better handle on how we’re spending money and how we’re managing inventories. I suggested we meet once a week with ownership, management, and a barista and bartender to figure out what’s in the store and what we need. I spent the next three or four days working on the finances. Later that week, I gave him my plan and also the union’s volunteer recognition form — because when we met, he had said, “I support you guys unionizing — I’m not Jeff Bezos.”

But he sent us an email rejecting the whole plan out of hand, telling us he won’t sign the voluntary recognition form. And he said because we are unionizing, we can’t talk finances anymore. So, he locked everybody out of the conversation. Then, he made the choice to continue with the store cuts.

The hour cuts were reinstituted starting in November. I used to work five nights a week, now I’m working one, and all the bartenders are on partial unemployment. That puts us back in a very precarious position for December.

But our conversation and his rejecting our proposal were galvanizing, because we did the work, we held up our end of the bargain, we showed up and proved that we can make this place work to make money.

The good news is that, in light of all of this, we’ve been able to organize with a unanimous vote with Workers United. I started a secret WhatsApp group. Within a day, we said, “This is what we want to do.” Every day, we keep on showing up, and we’re all still saying, “Yeah, we want to do this.” That means that I think we’re going to win.

Amber Crabb

For a long time, communication was shady between ownership and management and between ownership and us as well. Something like this was a long time coming.

Very soon after you start working here, it becomes very clear that the workers really run this place. We have two managers who are amazing and carry a ton of the weight. They and we really run the place and are trying to make it work and make it better. Ownership has been more of an obstacle. So, I’m not surprised we’re unionizing. Because it’s always felt like we’re in it together.

Hadas Thier

What made you optimistic that unionizing could work at a small independent coffee shop?

Gabe Caldwell

I’ve been saying this could work to everyone who would listen from the start. But I don’t think even I thought it would ever actually pan out, because there’s so much turnover in this industry. We are lucky to have people who’ve been around here as long as they have. But we’re talking about people’s lives. Winter’s coming, it’s gonna get cold, how are we going to live? I think that on its own was enough to be like, “Okay, well, we got to try something.” This is how we try.

The owner’s decisions were the catalyst for it. But everybody loves to complain about their job. When we’re at work, we complain about how shitty our pay is, how things don’t get fixed, how things get done at the whims of ownership that don’t make sense for the business and don’t help us as workers. People take for granted the working conditions that come with this kind of work: you’re not going to get health insurance, you’re “at will.” We accepted that because we had to. But at this point, we’re not accepting those conditions anymore.

We had a lot of conversations. The thing about cafés and bars is that you have a lot of face time with your coworkers. We’re working next to one another for hours at a time. There’s plenty of time to talk about any questions. We worked through a lot of the finer points of what it means. This is our neighborhood coffee shop. I live two blocks away. We come in; we run into each other all the time. So, there’s constant communication and an underlying solidarity.

Hadas Thier

What impact has the wave of Starbucks organizing had on you?

Gabe Caldwell

We had a coworker who worked here and worked at Starbucks too. I remember when a lot of the unionization stuff started happening, they started talking about it. I said, “If your store unionizes, you sign that card!” Sure enough, a month later, they went union.

Tomás Laster

I also reached out to a friend of mine who works at one of the unionized Starbucks, and they recommended reaching out to Workers United. So, it’s definitely in the air. But it’s in the shop too.

There’s a de facto acceptance of the conditions that service workers work in. We don’t expect to get benefits or perks or to consistently make rent, to not have to work two jobs, or not be at the whim of employers in how we schedule our lives. The more that service workers in coffee shops and bars can show that it does not have to be this way and that there is an alternative, the more we can change what is acceptable as a baseline for the dignity and livelihood and well-being of service workers.

The Starbucks campaign is obviously a huge inspiration to us. But doing it at smaller coffee shops as well is something that we hope can galvanize others. There are a ton of small independent coffee shops in Brooklyn, and I think a lot of them have similar issues to what we have experienced, and we hope that would also expand to others.

Hadas Thier

Beyond the Starbucks campaign, what has shaped you politically?

Gabe Caldwell

I was woken up at the start-up that I worked at when they fired my entire team at the start of the pandemic. I’m never going to forget that. I’m tired of it — it’s not going to happen again. My family also lost their house in the financial crisis. There is a fundamental damage that’s done to people by the engine that we’ve been building. I’m tired of watching people get churned over.

Tomás Laster

I’m originally from Argentina. That’s a country that, despite being under the boot of neocolonialist policies, has a very strong union culture and very strong unions. As a result, workers there have a lot of protections that workers in the United States, a much wealthier country, don’t have. There’s also a history of the dictatorship in Argentina, where some of the first people who were targeted by these military agents were union leaders.

I’ve seen the resilience and power of workers organizing, against strong odds and state terrorism, and how those bonds can uplift workers in very dire conditions. What we’re doing is easy compared to that.

Amber Crabb

I worked for a boating center for three years. We used to say it was a community center disguised as a boating center. Because, really, it was a place where people came to meet people and practice whatever they found therapeutic in nature. What I learned from that experience is that people crave community and a place of belonging. Our coworker KK says he sees community members that he’s known forever growing up on the block get their first solid job offer here sitting at the bar, networking with people. The community aspect of it is what ties us all back in.

Hadas Thier

Anything else?

Gabe Caldwell

Come spend your money here. Buy coffee. We’ve got a fine selection of local beers. And unionize your workplace. You have literally nothing to lose — they’re gonna fire you anyway.

Through this process, we’ve gotten to know labor lawyers and organizations. You want to unionize? Come talk to us. I know all the paperwork; I filled out the paperwork three times incorrectly, but now I know it so well. We will answer your questions. Come through, let’s chat.

Tomás Laster

As far as community support, we’re going to need support from people who want to see the business thrive, because we need the business to succeed in order for the union to succeed.

To second Gabe’s point: reach out to us and unionize your own workplace. Let’s continue to build a network of people helping each other. We welcome other people to come in and meet here. This café is a place that’s friendly to unions, a place where we welcome people to come and get together with us and with one another and keep building out from there.