By Maximillian Alvarez / The Real News Network
The union wave is hitting coffee chains big and small, but the bosses aren’t going down without a fight. In June, after workers there voted overwhelmingly to unionize, Starbucks permanently closed the popular College Ave. location in Ithaca, New York, in a suspected act of retaliation, leaving workers in dire financial straits. Then, on July 11, Starbucks announced it would close 16 of its branches over alleged “safety concerns.” Workers and organizers have been quick to point out that two of the branches targeted for closure in Seattle also recently unionized, and they allege that Starbucks is breaching US labor laws. Meanwhile, in Louisville, Kentucky, local “progressive” coffee chain Heine Brothers’ Coffee has come under fire for its own response to employees’ efforts to unionize, including closing the Douglass Loop location, where some of the most vocal pro-union workers were employed. In an urgent panel discussion, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with worker-organizers from the closed Heine Brothers’ store in Louisville and the closed College Ave. Starbucks in Ithaca: Gami Ray, a barista and worker-organizer with the Heine Brothers’ Workers Union, and Bek, a shift supervisor and worker-organizer with Starbucks Workers United.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us. The growing wave of labor organizing across different sectors in the US and beyond continues to be one of the few bright spots in these very, very bleak times. But the corporate backlash to these organizing efforts has been fierce, underhanded, and relentless. And as excited as we may all get whenever we hear about a new unionization effort or a new strike, we need to be just as vigilant when it comes to calling out union busting and other acts of retaliation against workers for exercising their rights.
Recently on my podcast Working People, which we publish every week here at The Real News, I got to speak with Nadia Vitek, a partner at the College Avenue Starbucks location in Ithaca, New York, where workers made history earlier this year after all three Starbucks locations in Ithaca unionized at the same time, becoming the first city in the US where every Starbucks corporate location was unionized. In that podcast episode, Nadia and I talked about how Starbucks, in a suspected act of retaliation against workers for unionizing, closed the popular College Avenue location on June 10. Since then, workers have been left jobless and in dire financial straits, but they are continuing in their attempts to bargain with the company and fight for their workers. Many fear that this is just an escalation in Starbucks’s war against the wildly successful unionization effort spreading throughout the country.
Just this week, Starbucks announced that it would be permanently closing 16 more locations, ostensibly for safety reasons, though workers and organizers suspect that there may be retaliatory motivations. Then last week at The Real News, we published a great report from our regular Real News contributor Molly Shah about a similar and similarly infuriating story out of Louisville, Kentucky. Heine Brothers’ Coffee, a local Louisville chain since 1994, has built up its brand as a socially conscious company, but the way that the company has responded to staff efforts to unionize has put those progressive bonafides in doubt.
As Shah writes in her piece, “The organizers stressed that pay rates at Heine Brothers’ often do not rise to the level of a living wage in Louisville, and that baristas are dependent on tips from customers to fill the pay gap – A system that results in variable take home pay and a lack of stability. Organizers have also highlighted the suspicious manner in which the Heine Brothers’ store in the Douglass Loop neighborhood was suddenly closed on June 30, which they say is indicative of the way that workers have not been respected by management. Organizer Gami Ray said that they were working when management came in and instructed them to clear the store of customers in the middle of the day before announcing to staff that the location would be closing effective immediately.”
Now, of course both Starbucks and Heine Brothers’ deny that the store closures were acts of retaliation against workers for organizing. But to talk about all of this today, I’m honored to be joined by two worker organizers from each of these stores. First we have Gami Ray, themselves a barista at Heine Brothers’ and an organizer for the Heine Brothers’ union. We are also joined by Bek, who was a shift supervisor at the College Avenue Starbucks, and she was part of the organizing committee.
Gami, Bek, thank you both so much for joining me today.
Bek: Of course, happy to be here.
Maximillian Alvarez: Now, there’s so much to dig into here. But really the important thing is that we have you both here to talk our viewers through what has been going on at your respective stores, what you and your coworkers were going through before y’all started organizing, what it looked like when the organizing kicked off, and where things are now after these store closures. So I was wondering if we could start by just getting to know a bit more about you both, how you came to work at Starbucks and Heine Brothers’, what that work looks like, and how you yourself got involved in the organizing that happened at each store.
Bek: Well for me, I started working at Starbucks as soon as I could at 16 years old, back in 2016. And I loved the job, I loved the work. I loved being a barista. I got promoted as soon as I turned 18. And it just like, I don’t know, it slowly did deteriorate as I was working. And just the, I don’t know, the workplace just started deteriorating. And the way that I got involved was it was actually Nadia who came up to me, and it was in the middle of a rush. And they kind of pulled me aside and they were like, so did you hear what was going on in Buffalo, in Starbucks? And I was like, yeah. And they were like, well, do you want to come over to my house after work and we can talk about what that means for us? And I was like, hell yeah. And so I went over to their house, they showed me some Instagram accounts and explained what a union actually was to me because I was not aware. And they kind of just sucked me into it. And I love being an organizer, it’s been really empowering. And that’s my story of it.
Maximillian Alvarez: This is one of the things that’s always so incredible and important, I think, to highlight whenever we’re talking about these unionization efforts at Starbucks and beyond, is it’s not some far away thing that only other people are doing. You and your coworkers can do it, and often all it takes is just turning to your left, turning to your right and saying, hey, this sucks. Or hey, we should do something about this issue that management isn’t addressing. And once those conversations get going, we’ve seen from Starbucks how quickly things can move. And just real quick, Bek, I wanted to ask if you could say a little more about that deterioration of working conditions that you mention at Starbucks. This is something that I’ve heard from a number of the Starbucks partners I’ve talked to. They mention things like the scheduling getting screwed up, people getting put in different stores, or fewer people on busy shifts than they’re used to, the online orders just piling up.
So I was wondering if you could give viewers and listeners a little more of a sense of how things changed at Starbucks over your time working there.
Bek: Well, all the really bad stuff started when we actually got into the unionization efforts, but it did start feeling like they were taking advantage of my work ethic and the things that I was willing to do. Like, for example, they brought me to Syracuse when I could go to Syracuse. And it was to train shift supervisors, which is not something that I would get a bonus for or anything like that. It’s actually a manager’s job. And they brought me there to enforce cleaning standards and stuff, and I didn’t get any sort of compensation for this at all. And that happened in 2018, so that was well before the unionization efforts. But it really started to go really downhill when Buffalo started up, because I feel like they knew that Ithaca was coming up next for that.
That’s when the staffing – Well, they had actually started with them love bombing us at first. It was more like, oh, what do you need fixed in your store? They sent like five different managers to come and talk to everyone. And what do you want changed in your store? What needs fixing? Whatever. And I mean, they tried their best. They didn’t do a very good job. And then after they realized that love bombing us didn’t work, then they started treating us like animals almost and understaffing us. And saying that we can’t turn our mobile orders off even though they’re literally an hour behind what we’re supposed to be making. I could go on and on about how the conditions deteriorated.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. Don’t you worry, we’ll get to that next. So we’ll talk about the organizing efforts and the backlash for sure, but that’s super helpful. I appreciate it. Okay, Gami. What about you? Can you tell us a bit more about how you came to work at Heine Brothers’, what that work looks like, and how you yourself got involved in the organizing campaign there?
Gami Ray: Yeah, so I really was just looking for a place that I could be and feel safe at. I am trans, I didn’t have many options as far as what workforce I can be in, as a lot of people don’t. And I feel like there was this image that was projected about Heine Brothers’ where trans identities were safe or Black identities were safe. And it was an equitable model to the best that it could be. I was tired of having to be a different person at work than I was at home, so I was like, absolutely. Been trying to get a job in coffee for years, because I’ve always been interested in the art of it, always been interested in everything about how coffee house culture goes. So I started working there. I got in, I think, now it’s been about a year, and I was working at the Douglass Loop store.
Pretty immediately I started noticing that things were not what I thought that they were going to be and noticed that there was treatment of workers that we didn’t feel was acceptable. And it really did snowball into this point of like, okay, we love our jobs. We love the people that we work with. It quickly became a close-knit store, so quickly got to a place where we were operating on solidarity, interpersonally, and felt really stunted and thwarted in our ability to do that while at work because we only had so much power to advocate for ourselves and to advocate for each other. And so we had been talking about the need for a union pretty much since I started. I was like, this place needs a union. And why wouldn’t they? It’s a local business. They’re progressive. Why wouldn’t a union work here?
But yeah, our store. To be maintenanced it seemed like we had to validate that something needed to be fixed instead of just being like, it is broken, it needs to be fixed. Definitely did not feel like we had a direct line to corporate in any capacity. And even with that, we have no representation in upper management for anyone who is trans. We don’t have any Black upper management. We don’t have any upper management that reflects the identities that run the business. We feel like we’re not considered, like our identities are truly not considered in the same way that they’re marketed so that their business can be this beautiful, progressive image.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, I think this is a really important point, that because of workers like yourselves organizing at places like Starbucks and Heine Brothers’, it’s really, I think, forced a lot of folks out there to update their understanding of what labor organizing looks like and where it comes from. Because it’s not always just that we work at this horrible, hellish workplace and we need to unionize to save ourselves. Of course that happens. And people working in such conditions obviously desperately need a union. Every worker needs a union. But at the same time, I think that over the course of the pandemic especially, we saw a lot of horrifying examples of jobs where even when workers loved working there, we saw how important it was for workers to have an actual say in how their jobs are run, in how important decisions that affect workers and customers are made.
Just thinking about safety protocols during COVID waves. Do workers get to actually have a say, a vote? Can they veto a decision made by management if they collectively don’t feel like their safety needs are being adequately addressed? A lot of times, especially if workers were not unionized, that was not the case. Same goes for the “hero pay” that a lot of workers in different industries got when it was a convenient… Don’t get me wrong, every worker needed and deserved that extra money, and companies from Amazon on down were happy to tout themselves as these benevolent companies honoring their hardworking employees who were making sacrifices during a pandemic to keep the gears of commerce going. So they said, we bumped up the hero pay of our hero workers.
And then like two months later they ripped it away. Workers had no say whatsoever over that, it wasn’t locked into a contract. That’s why companies called it hero pay and not hazard pay. Because if it’s hazard pay, then you have to keep paying it for as long as the hazard persists, and their legal teams knew how to get around that. Anyway, the point being is that, for folks watching and listening, there are many complex reasons for organizing in your workplace and sometimes it really comes down to, hey, we actually like working here. There are things that we do like, but we want to lock those into a contract so that management can’t just decide one day to totally change course. And I think that’s a perfectly reasonable response for any worker to have regardless of what industry they’re in.
And building off that, Bek, I wanted to throw it back to you and ask if you could talk a little more about what that organizing effort looked like amongst you and your coworkers there. You mentioned that y’all were looking at what was happening in Buffalo. Could you take us back to that moment when y’all were really deciding to make a go at this? What sorts of conversations were you having? What were the issues that were really important for y’all to organize around? And what was the response from Starbucks?
Bek: We started with first getting an organizing committee. It was four people that we got, a really solid organizing committee. And we just… oh my God, what do you call it? Assigned us people to talk to from our stores to get them on board and get the feeling of what they’re feeling about it. We started the conversation with, it was literally just us going up to them and being like, so, how do you like your job? What do you like about it? What don’t you like about it? And just having that casual conversation with them. And we obviously figured out everyone has really big problems with some of the things that Starbucks is pulling right now, especially when it comes to COVID.
I think that a lot of what drove us in the beginning was the COVID regulations because they were like… At first they were saying everyone needs to wear a mask. There’s no seating, everyone’s just in and out, and that’s exactly what we wanted. We had the dividers and everything. And then all of a sudden they took away the dividers. They said masks are optional. They brought back our seating. Didn’t ask us our opinion about it at all. And so we were obviously all pretty upset about that, and we wanted to feel safe in our workplace. That’s really what drove us a lot in the beginning was the COVID regulations. But it’s also just that no one can survive off of $15 an hour and baristas are making, I think the starting pay at Starbucks where I’m at is like $15.60 something. I don’t know. And no one can survive off of that.
And also, there’s just so much more. We want more affordable healthcare, because the healthcare that Starbucks provides for us that they love to say that they provide for us, it’s super expensive and it is really, really crappy. You need to pay whatever. We just want livable wages. We want more of a say when it comes to disasters like this.
Another big thing that happened at our store that really drove everyone together, I guess, and also made it just so obvious that we need this is that there was… It started as a bomb threat at Cornell, and our store is literally right next to Cornell campus. So there was a bomb threat at Cornell, and the shift supervisor who was on did close the store. That’s just what her decision was. And then when she talked to management, then they somehow contacted the people at Cornell and found out that it was just an active shooter.
It wasn’t a bomb threat, it was only an active shooter. So they decided to reopen the store because they felt like it was safe enough, with an active shooter around where our store was. There were, I think, six people on the floor that day. And only like two people felt safe to actually be out there. Because it’s not like we were getting any business anyways. The entire city knew that there was an active shooter, and so it’s not like we were getting any business anyways. We didn’t even need to be open. So that’s really something that people were hearing about and they were like, they reopened the store? What? That’s not what was supposed to happen. Even when you asked everyone else who was at the store, then they said, no, I did not feel safe reopening the doors. That really solidified things, I think, for our store, and made it so that more of the majority voted yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, that would do it. I feel like that would, if I was on the fence that might tip me over from one side to the other. Geez, man, that is nuts.
Gami, what about you? Can you take us back to the initial stages of the organizing effort over there at Heine Brothers’? What sorts of issues were really central to you and your coworkers? What did that organizing look like, and what was the response from management?
Gami Ray: So our organization, as far as committee-wise, really just started with two people, someone at my store and someone at another store. And they just went and rang the doorbell of a union hall after we had dealt with a lot of things and talked amongst ourselves about all the things we were dealing with. And at our store specifically we had an issue where someone, we felt like they were being treated unfairly, and just contradictory to a lot of things that we had come to understand about the store. So yeah, those two people went and rang the doorbell of a union hall and were like, are you all a union hall? And it started from there. And next thing you know, it was two to four people at the meetings, to like six, to like 10, to like 12.
And then before our citywide, I believe we had like 40 to 50 people at the union hall with us. And our citywide is when we went public. It was interesting because our campaign is spread out over all of the stores that Heine Brother has, which before our store got closed it was 18. So now it’s 17. So we have over 200 baristas that we are organizing right now. And so at the citywide, we just made it known that this was our intention. Our intention was to unionize. And through more and more meetings with all these people, we realized that each store seems to be run like it’s run by a different company. We hear about all of these issues. And on top of issues, things that we all believe to be true about how the company is run or how certain things work, we were realizing none of us had the same information.
We got to this point where we were like, we really don’t have any idea how this company functions on certain levels. We have no idea. No one here knows. And these are things that involve our pay, how much money we’re making, how certain things are divided up. So hearing all of the issues at each store and how there’s so many issues. I could go on forever. At our store specifically we had a huge issue of feeling like we were very tokenized and like nothing that we were vocal about seemed to matter. And we had a very neighborhood-like store. People had been coming to our store for 21 years. But for the most part, the values that this company… The values that we feel that they profit off of are not values that we see.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, and that’s always the test for any progressive company that markets itself as such. And as you said, builds a brand off that and makes money off that. You really see how progressive a company is when its workers say, hey, we want a union. And often the response is, to put it mildly, disappointing. And to put it less mildly, the response to, again… Both Starbucks and Heine Brothers’ have said that the store closures, as suspicious as they look, as suspicious as the timing is, as much as workers feel that these are blatant acts of retaliation against workers for organizing – Not to put words in anyone’s mouth, but this is certainly what we’re hearing from folks – Both companies deny that’s the case.
And they say, we close for normal routine reasons. We have business justifications for closing this or that location. It has nothing to do with our workers organizing, yada yada, yada. But I don’t want us to get sucked into that right this second, because I know only have y’all for a few more minutes. And I wanted to ask y’all if you could talk about your experience with your stores closing, because I know that’s a huge emotional blow. Obviously it’s a financial blow. You’re suddenly worried about how you’re going to pay rent, pay bills, what you’re going to do for money going forward. But also after being so thoroughly involved in the organizing campaign to have the bottom drop out on you like that, I know that’s just so much to deal with.
So I wanted to ask you both if you could describe what it was like when you’d learned about the store closure, what was going through your minds and your coworkers’ minds. And then if you could round out by telling folks where things currently stand with your stores and what folks out there watching this and listening to it can do to show solidarity with y’all.
Gami Ray: At Douglass Loop, the store that I worked at, it was the middle of the day, we had been the most vocal union store. We had been the first to sign our petition. We had our little union stickers up around the store. And it had a lot of support from the community. The community was coming in and being vocal about it. And then one day at 2:00 as my shift is coming to its end, I see multiple people from headquarters who I had never seen set foot in our store, or who it was just not routine to be in our store, show up. And they asked me to start doing closing duties after I had just worked an open to 2:00.
And as the next shift arrived, they pull us behind the counter, letting us know. Well, before the next shift had arrived, they had asked us to help ask customers to leave because we were closing for the meeting. And so they came behind the counter after second shift had gotten there, and were very short with it. They said after much consideration, we are closing the Douglass Loop store effective immediately. Make sure that you have all of your belongings because you won’t be able to come back and get anything else. Make sure to leave your key. Here is a packet with all the information about the two options you have, which are severance, leave the company and receive severance, or receive a stipend and stay with the company and transfer to one of the other 17 stores. Which, at the time, we had no idea that we were going to have no choice, no deliberation on which store we were going to. I specifically was transferred to a store 16 minutes away from my house. Douglass Loop is a 15 minute walk. I don’t have a car. And a lot of us lived really close to Douglass Loop and we all got transferred, split up to different stores.
We were all just stunned. They seemed to have the text that they were going to send to the rest of the staff ready to send, because I was like, okay, walk away from the situation that I’ve just been given to process. And as soon as I start walking away, I see a text pop up from another one of our staff. Our store is closing and sent a screenshot of this message. And that was that. The next day we held an action to bring awareness to the community that, one, our store is closed. The community certainly didn’t know. And that we just thought it was really suspicious that it happened to one of the most pro-union stores. And even more so, whether or not it was union-related for the company, we all felt like that was unacceptable. And we also had like five days to make our decision over a holiday weekend.
The first option was to mail it in before we personally reached out and asked for more options on how to make this decision on paper. I think we’re still all stunned. I think this is the first week for everyone going back to work. We’re all still invested in organizing. We had one person choose a severance, but they were going to put their two weeks in anyway to move on to another job. So it’s not like they weren’t pro-union or didn’t want to stay and organize. The timing just didn’t work out for them to do the entire transfer situation. We had a lot of people show out for the union meeting following that. People were like, oh my goodness, this is happening. That was not okay. And we’re still going. If anything, this has given us more momentum
Maximillian Alvarez: And where can folks go to stay up to date on developments and show support for y’all?
Gami Ray: So we have a Twitter and an Instagram. It’s going to be @HBWorkersUnion on both platforms. We share our community petition link, we share updates, we share things that are going on as well as other unions that may need support.
Maximillian Alvarez: Awesome. Thank you. And Bek, what about you? Can you tell us a bit about the experience of learning about the store closure, where things stand now, and what folks out there can do to show support for you and the other College Avenue workers?
Bek: Yeah, well, so I was actually on a leave of absence for two months for my mental health, because I couldn’t handle their union busting. And it was literally two days before I was supposed to get back from my mental health leave that they called a meeting over Microsoft Teams for the whole store. And so we had this meeting on I think it was the 3rd or 4th of June, and it was held by, I think that there were four or five execs there. It was my store manager, my district manager, and then a couple of partner relations people, and some really higher up manager.
And the meeting was like 10 minutes long, tops. And they were all late, first of all. They’re always late. They started by having my district manager reading off of this paper, whatever he was reading off of, saying the store is closing, blah, blah, blah. I don’t know exactly what he was saying. But they never even said that it was permanently closing. This was the beginning of summer and it’s a college town. So the majority of the store thought, oh, it’s just for the summer because that’s our slow time. That kind of makes sense. Sure. And so that’s the sense that everyone got in that meeting. We were still all up in arms about it. You can’t do this, we’re unionized. You need to be bargaining with us about these decisions. And the only response that they had for us, for all of our questions on do we have jobs, what’s going to happen? Blah, blah, blah. We will bargain with your committee in good faith. That’s just all they kept on saying to us when our entire bargaining committee was in that meeting.
The meeting was like 10 minutes long. And as soon as we got off the call, then Nadia, who is our point of contact person for our store, got off the call and looked at their email and they got an email from, I think it was either the lawyer or one of their partner resource people that was saying that College Ave is permanently closing due to the grease trap as well as business reasons. So it was permanently closed according to that. We had a week’s notice. And so I had three days back at work after my two month leave, and it was really, really emotional. I’ve been working there for a very long time and I’m really connected to this store and these people and my union, and it was really, really emotional.
There were two events that happened. There was one like two days before we closed, we did like a sip-in where a ton of people came and ordered waters and tipped really well. And then had a little picket outside. It wasn’t exactly a picket, but yeah, they would have partners talk about their experience. They would chant, the works. And that was really cool, to feel that solidarity there, because the days working were so, so emotional and so like, oh my God, it’s ending. It’s so scary. Then the last day we had like… Oh man, I don’t even know what we called it. But the same type of deal where people would come and support us and tip well and all that.
Our managers were there for both of those events. Their faces, they were so funny. They looked so pissed looking out at everyone and hearing the chanting and everything. It was really cool. And now we are bargaining with them about the effects of the closure. We can’t actually do a transfer or anything until we actually have it in writing. But they did offer us transfers to the other two locations in Ithaca, or just getting vacation time, but we do get sick and vacation time at Starbucks. And so I don’t know why they can’t give us sick time, but I don’t know, vacation time. Aren’t you supposed to use that up anyways? That doesn’t really seem like a valid severance to me.
So no one is able to work right now because we don’t have this in writing because they’re being super difficult about all of the little details. They want to word everything really vaguely and they don’t want to guarantee that we’re not going to get super low hours like we were before. And they don’t want to guarantee that… I don’t know, they’re just being really vague and not taking any of our proposals into consideration. We want it in writing. So right now, we are getting paid by the union for going to bargaining meetings and stuff. But we do have a GoFundMe for the College Avenue store. It should be in the links. It’s on Instagram and Twitter @SBWorkersUnitedIthaca for both of them, I think. There’s a GoFund me for that because we are all really struggling money-wise.
Maximillian Alvarez: So that is Bek, a worker organizer with Starbucks Workers United, a shift supervisor, and member of the organizing committee at the College Avenue Starbucks location, which was closed last month. And Gami Ray, a barista and worker organizer at Heine Brothers’ coffee in Louisville, Kentucky at the Douglass Loop location, which was also closed last month. Gami, Bek, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.
Bek: Yeah. Thank you. Of course.
Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez at The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support, become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.