Workers at Pavement Coffeehouse — a company with eight locations across the Boston area — have organized the first union coffee shop in Massachusetts. An organizing committee began meeting in late May with representatives from the New England UNITE HERE joint board and delivered a letter to management June 1 stating their intent to unionize. Now they have completed a card check this June 28 with more than 80% of workers in favor, winning the union.
Such rapid organizing was made possible by the overwhelming support of the workers. After just one day of collecting signatures, the organizing committee of the Pavement UNITED union had 60 out of about 90 eligible workers sign union authorization cards. Because of the unity of the workers, management was immediately forced to concede and recognize the union.
Conor, a member of the Pavement union organizing committee, told Liberation News that working at a coffee shop “takes skill, and it takes craft. … Other baristas who don’t work in specialty coffee shops, like Dunkin baristas, they also have a craft. There are people who work as short order cooks at a restaurant: that’s a really f***ing insane craft. Fast food workers at a McDonald’s, the whole spectrum of food service, the whole spectrum of service is skilled labor.”
“We are unionizing because we are people who deserve rights. … All labor deserves rights.”
Food service workers need unions
The food service industry employs over 9.3 million people nationally, with about 247,000 of those workers in Massachusetts. Many thousands of workers are paid “tipped wages,” meaning it is legal to pay them well below the federal or state minimum wage. Tipped wages start at $5.55 per hour in Massachusetts, and $2.13 is the federal minimum. Workers who are not tipped usually make only a few dollars more, around their state minimum wage. The median earnings for food service workers nationally is just $11 per hour.
Pavement Coffeehouse is the first unionized coffee shop in Massachusetts, and one of only a handful nationwide. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 1.2% of workers in the food service sector are unionized. On average, union food service workers earn $100 more per week than non-union workers.
At SPoT Coffee, workers organized in 2019 and faced management retaliation, including the firing of two staff. They boycotted and picketed while gathering support from the community in Buffalo, New York. Eventually, management conceded and recognized their union.
Two other coffee shops — Augie’s in Southern California and White Electric in Rhode Island — became worker-owned cooperatives after workers attempted to unionize. The worker co-op Slow Bloom was created by former employees from Augie’s who were all fired for their organizing efforts.
Pavement, pay, and the pandemic
At Pavement, the lowest and starting wage is $13.50 an hour, which is the state minimum. Workers are eligible for a $0.25 raise if they pass a performance review after six months. Promotions can lead to a wage of anywhere from $14.00 to $15.25 an hour.
All of these are well below the living wage in Boston, which according to MIT’s living wage calculator is $19.17 per hour. Many workers at Pavement are in their 20s or in college, meaning they often have the additional burden of student debt or tuition fees.
Pavement’s sick time accrues slowly. Only their highest pay-grade employees get a small amount of paid time off, and management utilizes unpredictable scheduling, all to maximize their profits at the expense of workers.
During the pandemic, management at Pavement laid off all their staff ostensibly so they could collect unemployment benefits and quarantine at home. But when they were rehired later in 2020, their sick time and PTO were erased, and many workers were hired back at lower pay or were demoted.
Management made all COVID-19 safety policies without the input of workers. Changes in indoor capacity and the lifting of restrictions in stores were handed down from on high, while workers paid the price in stress and risk.
The road ahead
As workers enter contract negotiations with management, Pavement UNITED plans to bargain for paid mental health days, a more flexible break schedule, an audit of everyone’s salaries across the company with gender and race equity in mind, transparency in how revenues and profits are reported, and an increase in base pay for everyone.
Victory for the Pavement Union is a step forward in the struggle for workers’ rights across Massachusetts and the United States, particularly for exploited food service workers.
“There has been such an outpouring of support,” said Conor, “not just from the community, but there have been people from other shops — whether it be coffee shops or just general cafes or bakeries — who have come to us and said, ‘How do you do this? We need this.'”