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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Workers fight for unionization in Greater Boston’s cafe industry

Diesel Cafe is pictured on May 10.

Unionization is on the rise in the Greater Boston area, with workers at independent cafes and major chains alike fighting for more rights in the workplace.

Kali Fillhart, a barista at Tokava Coffee, previously played a role in the successful unionization campaign at City Feed, a cafe and deli in Jamaica Plain. Now, Fillhart and her colleagues are trying to bargain with Tokava’s owner.

“We have a union now; we’re working on bargaining, but the owner is not doing anything to cooperate and is just letting the lawyer do what lawyers do,” Fillhart said. “It’s really hard because ultimately, these people don’t care about the workers, they just care about making the money and it’s exhausting being the one on the front line having to deal with customers and also ownership.”

Tokava Coffee’s owner could not be reached for comment.

Across town in Somerville, workers from Diesel, Bloc Cafe and Forge Baking Company, all of which have the same owners, recently finalized their contract after announcing their intent to unionize in December 2021. Chris Duncan, a worker at Diesel Cafe in Somerville, explained the motivation behind the unionization effort.

“There was not a lot of clarity on what company policies were, and it did not feel like there was a lot of payoff or reward for sticking around for a long time,” Duncan said.

Mia Kundert, a baker and barista at Forge, wrote in an email to the Daily that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues, as workers in the industry saw layoffs and reduced hours. However, the union effort at Pavement Coffeehouse inspired workers to band together.

“We announced our intent to unionize in December 2021 and were voluntarily recognized by management shortly after, followed by an extended period of collective bargaining until we reached a contract agreement,” Kundert wrote.

The committee met with management several times a month for 11 months, bargaining and ironing out the contract. Duncan, who served on the committee for about nine months, said the process was a test of patience.

“Management was bargaining in good faith. I don’t really think that they were trying to delay the process, but the fact that it was taking so long was contributing to a lot of turnover and frustration, I think,” Duncan said. “There was a sense, especially when we were getting close to really finishing the contract, that a lot of people just wouldn’t be around to really benefit from it.”

Kundert, who was also a member of the committee, noted that challenges stemmed from the small size of the Diesel, Bloc and Forge business, representing three independent cafes as opposed to a local or national chain.

“While our primary goal is to make sure employees are treated with respect and compensated fairly, we also have to take into consideration that the company does not have unlimited resources and still needs to be able to survive and continue to thrive in Somerville,” Kundert wrote. “We want the company and the union to succeed together, which took a lot of trust and a lot of compromise on both sides during the bargaining process.”

Kundert added that the owners and CEO of Diesel, Bloc and Forge have been receptive to the process, engaging in biweekly labor-management meetings that allow employees to bring thoughts, concerns and suggestions to management.

“Employees feel more confident in addressing concerns knowing that their fellow workers are there to back them up,” Kundert wrote. “It gives people a real sense of solidarity.”

The process ultimately led to a 2 1/2 year contract that was ratified by workers in February 2023, which included a pay increase, set raises for employees, paid time off, leaves of absence and holiday pay.

“We’re hoping these will curb the high rate of employee turnover that we’ve seen in the last three years and help craft a more stable long term work environment,” Kundert wrote.

One of the main issues that Fillhart and her coworkers at Tokava hope unionizing will address is better communication from management. She shared that her boss frequently implements changes such as increasing prices, ordering different ingredients and changing hours without informing the staff. She thinks more workers should unionize.

“Workers should have a voice in every store, every department, every cafe because ultimately all it means is worker solidarity,” she said. “The greater impact is that workers realize that we deserve better and that better is possible. … I truly believe that if workers had more say in the business, the businesses would be better off.”

Workers like Kundert and Duncan believe that the benefits of unionization foster a sense of community, empowerment and solidarity among workers beyond just better wages and benefits.

“Beyond getting raises and that sort of thing, I think that we feel more powerful,” Duncan said. “We feel like we’re able to make our voices heard, and that has been very valuable. … I have found a lot of comfort in how this has helped build a sense of community among the workers.”

Kundert added that she appreciates the support received from the Somerville community.

“Despite price hikes our stores haven’t seen a dip in orders or catering,” Kundert wrote. “People like to know that their money is going towards a business that supports its employees and it sets an example for other workers and employers that peaceful and practical unionization of small businesses is possible.”

The push for unionization is not limited to independent cafes, as evidenced by recent efforts by Starbucks workers in Somerville, who petitioned to unionize and join Starbucks Workers United on Feb. 24 this year, joining a national trend of Starbucks workers.

Barista Alyssa Milliken, who works at the Starbucks at 711 Somerville Ave., explained the reasons for her team’s unionization.

“Besides the stress, what personally motivated me to start unionizing was the amount of stress and strife my coworkers were going through,” she wrote in an email to the Daily. “A lot of them are students, and consistently I’ve seen their availability be ignored, hours cut, and just generally treated with a general lack of empathy from our direct managers.”

In response to workers’ unionization efforts, Milliken said, they faced intimidation tactics from management, including management bringing in workers from other Starbucks cafes to work at their store and facing pushback on wearing pro-union shirts.

In a statement to the Daily, a Starbucks spokesperson wrote, “we have maintained and consistently enforced our existing dress code policy.”

“Our dress code policies for customer-facing partners are lawful and intended to align with applicable health and safety regulations—and specifically allow the opportunity for partners to display their support for a union and other approved company sponsored organizations,” the spokesperson wrote.

Milliken said workers have received support from Somerville customers and regulars. Milliken also credited her coworkers and other unionized workers for their support throughout the process.

“I honestly don’t know if I would have even thought to bring this up to my coworkers, let alone how to begin or go about the process without seeing other Starbucks and local coffee shops bring in the news about their efforts,” Milliken wrote.