Baristas and other cafe workers are fighting for union recognition with UNITE HERE Local 24, and their first contract with the Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company in Detroit.
Calling themselves Comrades in Coffee, Great Lakes Coffee workers from the Midtown location on Woodward Ave. began striking and rallying for support on Feb. 16. GLC on Woodward closed its doors in January when a COVID-19 outbreak spread through the staff, and the workers were met with hostility by the bosses, who threatened them with loss of their jobs if they didn’t continue to work while sick or exposed to the virus.
In front of the GLC Midtown store, the workers’ strike was met with tremendous solidarity by supporters and motorists. More than 100 people attended the spirited picket line, including GLC workers and customers along with organizers and leaders of UNITE HERE Local 24, who the workers had approached for union organizing support. Other unionists and representatives from the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO, Democratic Socialists of America, Detroit Will Breathe, and Party for Socialism and Liberation, as well as U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib and State Rep. Abraham Aiyash, were in attendance.
Lex, a worker with 12 years of experience in the coffee industry, the last five with Great Lakes Coffee, said the situation led to tension with management and ultimately organizing to unionize. “The workers for GLC had been voicing our concerns for a few months before the strike started,” said Lex. “It came to a head when a COVID outbreak left nine of our staff members out of work with no sick pay and the remaining employees to try to run the daily operations with little to no management.”
In addition to union recognition, Comrades in Coffee are demanding clear COIVD-19 protocols; a starting wage of at least $15 an hour, with a clear wage raise table; anti-harassment and anti-discrimination protections; affordable health, dental and vision insurance; paid time off, including paid sick and parental leave; and better communication from management with staff.
Why GLC workers need a union
Striking worker and union organizer Beck Kaster told Liberation News: “Across the country you see more unions popping up in historical numbers. We all truly believe that working with a union can only better our workplace conditions. We all love our jobs and want to return to work; we’re just asking to be respected and have our company see us as more than names on paper.
“Prior to the COVID outbreak at Great Lakes, unfortunately nothing was that drastically different,” said Kaster. “Poor communication and disrespect from management has been going on for years and so has employees not feeling safe in their working conditions.” Kaster said GLC has always had a high turnover rate, “and in a time when people are not willing to risk their health for a job paying them $10 an hour, their staffing issues only got worse.”
Kaster also spoke about the discrepancies that GLC workers experience, “We saw new employees coming in getting higher starting wages while some of my coworkers had only gotten a $1 raise in the years they had been there.” This is a common way that companies try to divide workers against each other and sheds a light on how important unionizing is to bring workers together since ultimately the newer and older workers have much more in common than the GLC bosses.
Kaster shared that all of “these problems have only been building up and their reaction to the COVID outbreak pushed us to the edge.”
While Starbucks workers are currently organizing across the country, there are not many coffee companies with unionized workers. The coffee industry has been historically a non-unionized sector of labor and neoliberal marketing has played an integral part in the rise of the “specialty coffee” market.
When these companies talk about specialty coffee, they often imply a certain kind of labor creates a “good” product, deserving of a “fair” price. Much of the specialty coffee industry also likes to tout paying higher prices to these coffee producers, but with little or no transparency as to how much they are really paying in the trading of these coffees. Great Lakes Coffee has been growing steadily as a company from this narrative, while showing little evidence for its marketing claims.
Solidarity with coffee workers everywhere
GLC operates a large wholesale coffee roasting program, with multiple cafe locations in metro Detroit. It has garnered $6 million in revenue. The striking workers have received zero contact from the owners since they began their strike, yet GLC is well suited financially to be paying its workers good wages and benefits.
Instead, the baristas are working in hostile environments and lacking safety, healthcare or a livable wage. The money grossed from these “farmer direct, locally roasted and hand crafted” coffees is not going to them or to the coffee farmers, but directly to the owners’ profits.
These inspiring Comrades in Coffee are striking for bargaining power in their own workplace and also hope to be an inspiration that will continue to grow the coffee workers’ struggle in cafes and on coffee farms across the globe.
“As much as this is an internal battle with GLC, these issues are not unique to us — these are core issues at the root of the coffee industry,” said Lex. “Your coffee is only as good as the barista who’s serving it. It’s time to fight for better.”
Kaster added, “We encourage other baristas to open up discussion with their coworkers about their working conditions and wages. Our goal as Comrades in Coffee is of course to get a fair first contract at Great Lakes Coffee, but also to help other workers realize they have a say in their workplace and their voices are heard.”
To support Comrades in Coffee, you can call the bosses of Great Lakes Coffee at 248-745-0000 and demand they recognize the union and accept the workers’ contract demands. To stay up to date on their strike and information to join them on the picket line, follow Comrades in Coffee on social media or visit comradesincoffee.org.
The writer is a Detroit barista.