“Coffee is certainly better served if it’s unionized,” says Ryan Morrison-Mckell, a coffee worker at Cambridge Darwin’s Ltd.
The organizing movement is gaining momentum in Boston-area coffeehouses. In recent months, the owners of Pavement and Darwin’s – two Cambridge-based chains – have voluntarily recognized unions in their stores. The two unions are currently in contract negotiations with their owner.
Since then, several other coffee shops have begun the process of forming unions. In December 2021, workers at three coffee shops in Somerville – Diesel Café, Bloc Café and Forge Baking Company – asked their joint management to voluntarily recognize them as a union. Two Boston-area Starbucks locations also announced plans to unionize in December 2021, followed by two more locations a month later. More recently, City Feed and Supply, a cafe and deli in Jamaica Plain, launched its own organizing effort in March 2022.
Morrison-Mckell says service workers are being asked to take on heavier workloads to boost their companies’ profit margins.
“There is always a trend through ownership to save money by reducing the workforce, to put more and more of them on the shoulders of their current employees to generate more and more profits,” he says. . “Eventually what almost always seems to happen is that the pressure gets too much, you have big exits, and people end up having to quit and move on, mostly because it just becomes a workspace untenable.”
Mary-Kate McGeary, a member of Pavement’s bargaining committee who works at its Harvard Square location, says the Covid-19 pandemic has served as a catalyst for the coffeehouse unionization movement.
“Throughout the entire pandemic, people who went to work every day for catering were considered essential employees,” McGeary says. “But we would be in jobs where our landlords refused to give us Covid security or pay us enough to live in the Boston area, or have health care at a time when it is so vital in the United States. United – and anywhere – to have health care.
Pavement President Andrew LoPilato wrote in a statement that Pavement provides medical and dental care to its full-time employees.
“We provide KN95 masks to our employees and require vaccination except for medical or religious reasons,” LoPilato wrote. “Throughout the pandemic, we have followed or exceeded all state and CDC guidelines, including indoor mask mandates, limiting on-site dining, and providing emergency sick leave. to employees.”
“We work hard to ensure our employees’ hours and scheduling needs are met, including providing hours throughout the winter and omicron wave when business was extremely slow,” LoPilato wrote. .
Darwin’s Ltd. did not respond to a request for comment.
While McGeary says the health risks posed by the Covid-19 pandemic were ‘the driving factors’ for organizing, she clarifies that the movement is ‘more than just Covid protocols and getting more money’.
“It’s about being protected in your workplace, knowing that you can’t reduce your working hours at any time,” she says. “It’s about being able to get the health care you not only desperately need, but deserve.”
According to McGeary, gender-affirming healthcare for transgender and non-binary people is one of Pavement’s biggest demands in their contract negotiations.
“The sidewalk is known as a very strange space,” she says. “And it’s not included in our current health care plans or offered as something that could be covered.”
Kvêten Nerudova, another Darwin’s employee, says the cafe union movement owes its impetus to Pavement.
“Pavement laid the groundwork in Massachusetts for the rest of the organization that’s happening right now,” she says. “Darwin formed a union in part because Pavement formed a union, because that was now an option.”
“Pavement showed that it wasn’t something we could just aspire to, and it wasn’t something that was just a fluke,” adds Nerudova.
McGeary notes that union victories do not happen in a vacuum and that every successful contract negotiation and every successful union training helps the movement.
“Seeing other coffee shops succeed and seeing what they are able to negotiate is truly inspiring.”
McGeary says. “But it also helps our contracts in the negotiating rooms with lawyers to be able to say, ‘Well, that’s what a coffee shop has already agreed to. This is the future of unionized coffee, and you just have to accept it.’ »
Morrison-Mckell says that since Pavement and Darwin’s are two of the first coffee shops to negotiate a contract in the Massachusetts area, they are trying “to establish what would be an industry standard across the board.”
“It’s kind of unique because it’s never been done in this industry before,” he says. “We think and talk about things that may not be included in many average contracts.”
“So there are a lot of stakes when it comes to that,” he adds.
Once Pavement and Darwin are able to secure some of their demands, Morrison-Mckell says he thinks it will help the organizing movement gain momentum.
“As these first two contracts are signed, it will give many more people the ammunition and equipment they need,” he says.
Morrison-Mckell says customers should also support the movement, as cafes with unions will be able to “retain” employees who are truly passionate about making coffee.
“Anything that’s going to help employees be secure in their jobs, to earn a living wage where they can continue to pursue that as a driver and a passion,” he says, “is going to make better coffee.”