Coffee shop workers are unionizing like never before across the country, and City Feed Unite is joining the movement. CFU is fighting to win union recognition at City Feed and Supply, a locally-owned coffee shop and grocery store in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston.
The workers began organizing their union drive in spring 2021 when owners David Warner and Kristine Cortese abruptly canceled the workers’ $2 per hour hazard pay, with only two-days notice. Emery Spooner, a worker organizer at City Feed, told Liberation News, “Obviously the pandemic is still ongoing … that jump-started the conversation. And a lot of other issues got brought up.”
CFU hopes to join the growing ranks of union coffee shops in the state — two Starbucks in Massachusetts have won unions, with an additional 16 filing for elections with the National Labor Relations Board. Workers at Pavement Coffeehouse won voluntary recognition for all eight Boston area stores in June 2021. Workers at Darwin’s Coffeeshop in Cambridge followed suit in September.
City Feed’s two locations are a staple in Jamaica Plain, making approximately $4 to $5 million in annual revenue before the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of this success is due to its progressive, community-oriented branding, which includes selling equal exchange coffee and donating to community organizations. Yet, when their workers asked for voluntary recognition, Warner and Cortese said ‘no.’
Low wages, pay discrimination and dismal benefits
A hundred supporters and fellow coffee workers joined a solidarity protest on April 24 in Jamaica Plain called by City Feed Unite. During his speech at the rally, Spooner told the crowd:
“How are you going to run a business based on community service and engagement when our every concern and even the existence of our union, which contains the vast majority of our staff, is ignored? … We deserve a union and all the benefits that collective bargaining can give us. From wages sufficient enough to pay rent in Jamaica Plain, so we can pay rent in the neighborhood in which we work, to healthcare for each and every worker so we can afford to go to the doctor, to guaranteed sick time if we are infected with COVID-19.”
Hannah Cuthbert, a barista, told Liberation News, “We’ve confirmed with coworkers who [are white or men] that they get paid more and they get treated better.” When one woman and one non-binary worker were recently promoted to supervisors, they were paid a dollar less than previous supervisors with no explanation why.
“We got an email from David trying to address the discrepancies in pay,” Cuthbert said. “At the end of that email, he contradicted what he had previously told workers about pay rates … and said how much we’re paid and how much raises are is up to his and his wife’s personal discretion.”
Misinformation, intimidation and union-busting
Instead of listening to a supermajority of their workers and over 1,100 community members who signed CFU’s solidarity petition, Warner and Cortese responded in a letter, “City Feed and Supply will not be voluntarily recognizing the union.”
Cuthbert described a variety of misinformation and intimidation tactics over the past month. “We stated in our intent to unionize letter that we’d appreciate not being taken into one-on-one meetings,” yet, Warner has continued these meetings. In an email to staff, Warner and Cortese “claimed that the only way to get factual information about the union is to talk to managers.”
Warner and Cortese have also repeated the common anti-union narrative that the union is a “third-party” between workers and the owners. Luke, a cashier who gave only his first name to avoid retaliation, told Liberation News, “It’s ridiculous. There is no third party. The bargaining committee will be his employees, people he knows the names of.”
Most recently, Warner and Cortese have petitioned the NLRB for an in-person election. Workers have voiced concerns about facing travel barriers in order to vote on their union.
But the workers of CFU are not intimidated. As Luke told the crowd at the rally, “David doesn’t recognize the power and potential of this. Which is also why he thinks he has a chance of winning this election. He doesn’t … the window for him to union bust his way to a victory has long been closed.”