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Beyond Starbucks

Will the push to unionize small local coffee shops in Philly signal the death knell of the neighborhood cafe?

Lily Fender began canvassing for Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire while on unemployment as a seasonal landscaper. It was January 2020. Then the pandemic hit, followed by Democrats flocking to Biden, and like a lot of young progressives across the country, Fender was left to decide where else — and if at all — to reinvest the campaign’s energies and ideals.

That elsewhere for Fender was Philadelphia. They worked on a support team at an early-voting poll location in West Philadelphia, assisting residents with mail-in ballot registration and other paperwork. Only a few weeks after moving here, police shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr., igniting weeks of local protests during an auspicious moment for organizing. All over the city, workers ranging from hotel maids to nurses to employees at the Philadelphia Museum of Art were striking labor victories, as the fight for racial equality fused with the fight for workers.

“Getting involved with the Bernie campaign, only to see it get destroyed by money and power, I didn’t want to focus on electoral politics anymore,” says Fender, 32, who currently works as a union representative at Local 80 of Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. “I felt that a move toward the labor world, there would be a real opportunity to build democracy.”

In the fall of 2021, Fender took a job at Korshak Bagels, a South Philly bakery that had recently opened to fanfare with its $3 bagels and $16 wages. It was the brainchild of bohemian owner and poet-baker Philip Korshak, who credited the shop’s success to locally sourced ingredients and “happy workers.” Four months into its brick-and-mortar operation, his employees voted to unionize. Fender joined as they were drafting articles, building out a democratic structure, and bargaining over a contract — and loved it. “We made a Google poll for almost every decision that we made as a union,” Fender says. “On a small scale, we were as inclusive as possible.”

“This new generation of Gen Z workers have a different attitude towards work than previous generations. They don’t want to be told what they do, and they’re not willing to keep their mouths shut.” Penn State professor Paul Clark

Korshak repeatedly voiced support for the union, but that didn’t keep the shop from closing four months after the union reached its first contract. While workers lobbied to stay open, proposing changes like automation of dough-making or raising prices to $5 a bagel, Korshak wrote on social media that it “was not a vision I shared.” Fender continues to hear the criticism today. “One quirky guy is going to get more empathy than a bunch of workers demanding justice,” says Fender. After their workplace closed, the first to organize under Local 80, Fender joined the union full-time as the movement spread around the city.

“This is all part of the process of building something bigger, in particular for the coffee industry,” Fender says. “The whole point of our union is valuing the workers who are invested in coffee as a career, and valuing their work as a profession — not as a stopover, burnout job.”

Despite that closure, Local 80 has hardly slowed down. In the past four months, the union — primarily focused on coffee shops and small restaurants — has struck two hard-fought contracts with independently-owned coffee shops, Elixr and ReAnimator, after their workers threatened to strike. Those contracts have provided a total of 52 employees with terms that include across-the-board raises, systematized PTO, and cost-of-living adjustments that will exceed inflation going forward. Negotiations are ongoing with at least two more roasters. Meanwhile, baristas at Good Karma and Ultimo Coffee rejected the very same union, reversing a previous decision to unionize with Local 80. Those workers voted to decertify their union within a year of their formation.

Even in this self-styled union town, the rise of small coffee-shop unions will be a difficult thing for many Philadelphians to embrace. Coffee shops are low-margin businesses that welcome diverse groups of people to work, relax, and connect with others (for the price of a croissant) while bringing texture and community to their neighborhoods. Most of them are owned by entrepreneurs invested in their city, hire workers from the surrounding area and often support other small businesses by selling their products or offering their space for events.

Another hurdle: The seeming gains of some baristas have come at the cost of other workers, who’ve lost jobs, sometimes as a result of the economic pressures of a union contract — like at Korshak Bagels — or sometimes before one can be worked out. Good Karma temporarily closed two out of four locations after the union formed, only to reopen following the vote to decertify. It followed a pattern that’s been playing out across the country in recent months, as coffee shops have rapidly unionized, with owners often creating roadblocks or voicing an outright impossibility of sustaining their business with a union contract. 

So far, the mixed results of Local 80 show the risks of imparting a national fight against big corporate capitalism to the local reality of small entrepreneurship.

“We didn’t need a union. We have always been able to speak to and see the owner if we have a problem,” says barista Marco Camponeschi, who led an effort last year to decertify the newly formed union at Good Karma Cafe. “Do you know the Starbucks owner? I don’t think so. We are not Starbucks.”

Good Karma’s 22nd Street location

A fundamental culture — and economic — shift

Indeed, critics point to last fall’s shuttering of Eeva, a popular Kensington bakery and pizzeria (which was the first independent restaurant to recognize its worker union), along with Korshak, as cautionary tales. Indeed, the politics of this issue are so fraught that no coffee shop owner would let their names be used in this article.

While the economics are one concern among owners, they also worry about a fundamental shift in the culture of the coffee industry, one that workers and management might not be prepared for. A barista going on leave for four months to tour with their band, or managers fulfilling last-minute shift changes, well, those may be things of the past. “Most of the people who work in independent coffee shops — both employees and management — seek out and enjoy working in an environment that is not corporate and celebrates the individual,” wrote an owner in an email. They requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of union talks. “It’s already clear the vibe will change radically to one governed by the application of contract rules. We do not think this is a positive change, nor a healthy one for an independent coffee shop.”

The backdrop to Local 80’s recent wins is its union’s ongoing fight with the industry behemoth, Starbucks. Since 2020, workers at more than 375 Starbucks stores have declared their intent to unionize, including 11 so far in Philly. However, through lawsuits and other tactics — the National Labor Relations Board is investigating the closure of dozens of locations, including the one at 11th and Chestnut, as a means of scuttling union activity — Starbucks has been able to prevent a single union contract from being reached.

Contracts reached with smaller purveyors, like ReAnimator or Elixr, help to bolster the union’s chances of wins at Starbucks locations, according to Fender. For one thing, the more contracts that get minted, no matter the size of the employer, help to establish what are realistic contract terms in an industry that has traditionally lacked any union participation. And Local 80 has found itself negotiating with the same lawyers in different union pushes. Elixr was represented during negotiations by Littler Mendelson, the same lawyer for Starbucks.

“I do understand that there are inherent financial differences between Starbucks and any of the companies in Local 80, which can offer materially less,” says Fender. “But it’s not just owners we’re negotiating with; it’s lawyers. And now we know what to expect with that law firm.”

The owners I spoke to bristled at being lumped in with a publicly traded company. “This movement seems motivated by the belief that every employer is by definition exploiting the people who work for them,” one owner said. “We are proud to create good jobs.”

Of course, not all baristas see greener pastures in a union. The workers at Good Karma unionized last year, only to see support among their membership dwindle. After two out of the company’s four locations shuttered during contract negotiations, a subset of employees triggered a vote of decertification, which ended with a 6-to-4 vote in September that removed Local 80 and effectively ended their pursuit of a contract.

Like a lot of wage workers, Camponeschi, 31, says that he was principally concerned with losing his job as a result of the union. The father of three who speaks with an Italian accent — he arrived in Philly three years ago from Rome, with his wife, a PhD biologist at Jefferson — has been a full-time barista since the age of 17. Despite coming from a country with union density that’s roughly three times greater than the U.S., he found the demands of Local 80 to be “crazy.”

“The union was asking for something that the company wasn’t able to afford,” Camponeschi says. He received free legal help from the National Right to Work Foundation, which is anti-labor, in the decertification process. “We’re selling lattes for $4 lattes and bagels for $6. How many bagels or lattes do you have to sell?”

“Do you know the Starbucks owner? I don’t think so. We are not Starbucks.” — Good Karma employee Marco Camponeschi

“A perfect storm” for labor

Camponeschi is bucking a trend of rising union support among young workers. “This new generation of Gen Z workers have a different attitude towards work than previous generations,” says Paul Clark, a professor of labor and employer relations at Pennsylvania State University. “They have higher expectations. They don’t want to be told what they do, and they’re not willing to keep their mouths shut. They want to have a voice in their workplace.”

The national decline in union participation since the 1970s has coincided with the economy’s shift away from industrial and towards service-based work. But this recent resurgence in collective bargaining would not have happened without the pandemic, which offered “a perfect storm” for labor, Clark says. First, tough conditions for frontline workers stoked public support for unions, which ballooned during the pandemic up to 62 percent, the highest mark recorded in Gallup’s history. Second, through progressive appointments on the National Labor Relations Board, President Biden has created pro-union conditions unseen in decades. Lastly, a tight labor market with lower unemployment shifted some power to organized workers. “What we’ve seen in the last three or four years is something that those of us who look at this closely didn’t expect to see,” says Clark.

However, labor historians also warn that these trends could be fleeting. A change of party in the White House could slow union recognition, as could an increasingly employer-friendly labor market exiting the pandemic. Despite recent events, less than 2 percent of all food service workers are unionized, one of the lowest numbers across all sectors of work. “Ideology-wise, this is a momentous, generational moment, but whether this can actually move the needle on unionization density remains to be seen,” says Todd Vachon, a labor studies professor at Rutgers. “Compared to every advanced liberal economy, [American employers] are more aggressively anti-union than employers around the world,” Clark says.

One solution Clark suggests: a mutual commitment from owners and workers that in exchange for better pay and benefits, employees will prioritize making the company more efficient and profitable. In the meantime, the push for better working conditions threatens sacrificing one set of community-minded ideals for another.

After the decertification vote at Good Karma, the workers got a raise, along with other new benefits. A contract failed to materialize, but the fight still resulted in a win — albeit, fewer gains than the union was bargaining for — for workers. “Everybody got a raise, from the new barista to the assistant manager,” Camponeschi says. “A lot of people just want to come to work, do their job, get paid. They don’t want to go to work in the middle of a war.”



Photo courtesy Philly Joint Board Workers United

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