At Great Lakes Coffee Roasters, a cafe in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood, 20 baristas have been on strike since February 16, demanding recognition of their union and a first contact. Calling themselves “Comrades in Coffee,” these workers have launched one of the first recognition strikes — a labor action forcing an employer to acknowledge a collective bargaining representative — that the city has seen in years. Their demands include higher wages and improved workplace safety and benefits. The baristas also say they want to set a new standard for cafes across Detroit, while joining a national movement of cafe organizing.
The small chain employs about 24 baristas and cooks across the metro area, in the flagship cafe in Midtown and four satellite locations in local grocery stores. Workers are organizing with Unite Here Local 24, Detroit Metro’s hospitality union representing over 7,000 workers in the hotel, food service and airport industries. Over three months into the strike, management has closed down its largest store while still refusing to meet workers at the bargaining table.
Annabelle Aquino, who began working as a barista at the company’s Midtown location last year, tells In These Times that she loved making coffee and deepening connections with those in her community. Aquino, who also works as a special education teacher, describes the cafe as a hotspot in a busy neighborhood, and a place where workers hosted their own community events.
“But things started going downhill,” Aquino says, as conditions all too common in the coffee industry — including low pay and poor scheduling — soon added undue stress to the job. Great Lakes baristas say they make an average of about $10 to 11 an hour base pay, which could rise to $15 an hour with tips. Without a living wage, many baristas, including Aquino, worked multiple jobs. “As hardworking people who were doing our jobs and work outside of what we were trained or asked to do initially, we were not getting what we deserved.”
Max Capasso, a Great Lakes barista at a satellite location, says that on top of low wages, many workers living paycheck-to-paycheck were often scheduled with significant cuts to their hours. Capasso, who depended on getting scheduled at least 30 hours a week, said at times their hours have been cut to less than 10 a week with little notice. “At the end of the day it’s a huge industry that makes a lot of money,” says Capasso. “We are part of the process generating that money, and we’re not getting our fair share of it.”
For Lex Blom, a four-year barista at Great Lakes’ Midtown location, workplace safety is a pressing concern. “I worked in welding and I’ve gotten more injuries from this job,” Blom says. She adds that the pandemic only exacerbated safety concerns, as Great Lakes baristas’ calls for PPE and stronger Covid-19 protocols were largely ignored by management.
When an Omicron outbreak tore through the store in early January, nine out of 15 workers were out sick the same week, leaving only a handful to run the store. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Blom, who had contracted the virus at the end of December. Though Blom alerted management, she says other Great Lakes workers were not informed of the exposure, and instead found out via Blom’s social media.
On January 10, workers sent an email to management demanding the store remain closed until the remaining workers receive negative PCR tests, as well as hazard backpay for those who worked through the outbreak. In response, management said they would “assume resignations” for all employees who did not report to their scheduled shift. The union has since filed an Unfair Labor Practice Petition (ULP), alleging that management was threatening to fire employees for abstaining from work for their safety.
The following day the store was closed “temporarily” for employee safety and has yet to reopen as of early June. Employees who were left out of work were told by management that they could pick up shifts from two satellite stores in the Metro area, though workers allege that management at these locations were told not to contact Midtown workers. Most workers were forced to get new jobs to pay the bills.
“As I watched my savings account drain I frantically paid for my rent, utilities, car payment and student loans,” says Aquino. “I had to cancel medical appointments and struggled to pay for groceries.”
Out of work and fed up, workers began to organize. They contacted Michigan’s AFL-CIO, who connected them with Unite Here in mid-January. On February 16, after over a month without pay, 20 of the chain’s 24 workers launched the recognition strike, demanding recognition of their union and a first contract.
Nia Winston, Unite Here Local 24 President, has regularly joined Great Lakes baristas on the picket line and describes the workers as fearless. “These workers were extremely fed up with their employer and were ready to organize in a way that I have never seen before in my history in the labor movement,” says Winston. “[Workers said] ‘we have the majority, we’re not going back to work until our demands are met, we want respect on the job and we want proper health and safety protocols.’”
The strike has garnered support from members of the Detroit City Council, state representatives and congresspeople such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Workers have held several large rallies throughout the strike, giving speeches from the beds of pick-up trucks and leading hundreds of supporters on the picket line. Local businesses and institutions, like the Detroit Institute of Arts, have even agreed to stop selling Great Lakes coffee. Winston attributes this show of support to the relationships Great Lakes workers have spent years building with the surrounding community.
“Seven o’clock in the morning they’re on the picket line, cars are stopping, the regulars are pulling up and getting out of the car, hugging them, [asking] ‘what’s going on, what can I do? What do you mean [management] hasn’t reached out yet?” recounts Winston.
On May 24, workers learned that Great Lakes Coffee plans to permanently close their flagship Midtown cafe. The news was revealed to Unite Here during management testimony in a 10-day NLRB hearing, but employees and the public had not been notified until the union made the announcement. According to the owners’ attorney, Frank Mamat, management maintains the closure is due to an inability to “find people that felt comfortable working there because of omicron, and the customers felt the same way.”
“It is disappointing, to say the least, that the Miracles and company have opted to go this direction against the very same group of people who played a crucial role in that cafe and the Great Lakes Coffee brand as a whole,” wrote Comrades in Coffee in a statement. “We have held the line strong since February 16, 2022, and are committed to hold it down until we win.”
Owners of Great Lakes Coffee did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite the closure, which laid off the majority of the striking workers, the baristas continue to strike for recognition at the remaining satellite locations.
As of June 1, management still has not recognized the union. When addressing the campaign, Great Lakes owners Greg and Lisa Miracle attribute workers’ frustrations to poor in-store management, and say they cannot afford workers’ demands. The couple opened Great Lakes 10 years ago and describe the operation as a family business hit hard by the pandemic. In spite of this, the company opened three new cafes in the last two years, including one in Key West, Florida.
“We’re not asking for that much. We’re not,” says Aquino. “We’re just asking for livable wages and safe places to work.”
In late-February, Unite Here filed a ULP against the company for “failure to recognize and engage in good faith collective bargaining” with the union, alleging that the company is breaking the law. The union is asking the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to reinstate a doctrine known as “Joy Silk” — a policy that made it unlawful for employers to refuse to bargain with a union if there was a clear majority support among workers. The policy was abandoned by a conservative NLRB council in 1972, though current NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo has expressed interest in resurrecting it.
A national movement
Great Lakes workers are not alone in their effort to organize and use collective action to win demands.
The food service industry has traditionally seen one of the lowest unionization rates in the country: the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only around three percent of food service workers were union members in 2021.
But cafe unions are on the rise. In 2019, 130 SPoT Coffee baristas in Buffalo, New York voted to join Workers United. In April 2021, about 400 baristas with Colectivo Coffee across Wisconsin and Illinois joined the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). In June 2021, another 90 baristas with Pavement Coffee — a cafe chain in Boston — voted to affiliate with Unite Here. As of early-June, more than 270 Starbucks cafes have petitioned to unionize with Starbucks Workers United, a campaign of Workers United, representing thousands of baristas in 37 states. 102 cafes have successfully voted to unionize with Starbucks Workers United in the midst of an intense corporate union-busting campaign, with more filing for elections each day.
Great Lakes baristas say that seeing the continued success of the Starbucks Workers United campaign has helped inspire their ongoing strike. But beyond these wins, “so many of us have been in this industry so long, everyone’s just getting so fed up,” Capasso says.
Capasso, who pickets daily outside the Meijer grocery store that a Great Lakes kiosk is located in, describes having conversations about the union with grocery employees every day as they arrive to work. “Unfortunately people are really used to being let down by progressive politics, or the idea that you can change anything… That’s why we’re really giving our all’s to make this work, because we just really want to have something to show that you can make a difference, you can stand up to things,” Capasso says.
Blom, who has worked in the coffee industry for over nine years, says workers’ demands go beyond just improving conditions at their café — they’re trying to raise the floor and set standards throughout the city.
Diana Hussein, Communications Lead for Unite Here International, says the union has seen an increased interest in organizing in recent years, and that the pandemic drove many workers’ frustrations to a tipping point.
She notes that throughout 2021, almost seven percent of food service and hospitality workers quit their jobs or even left the industry entirely, which is the highest rate of any sector. “It’s something really meaningful in this moment, where you’re seeing so much of the general population quitting their jobs and getting new careers, especially in this industry, but these folks are opting [for] a different way,” Hussein says.
“You can roast the best coffee in the world and it’s still only going to be as good as the barista that’s serving it to you at the counter,” says Blom. “It’s time that the baristas not only of Great Lakes Coffee but also of Detroit and the coffee industry at large be treated with the respect and dignity that it actually requires to be able to perform this job on a daily basis.”
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Hannah Faris is associate editor at The Wisconsin Idea, an independent reporting project of People’s Action Institute, Citizen Action of Wisconsin Education Fund and In These Times.