As Coffee Shops Unionize, Workers Need Greater Federal Support

By Nat Baldino

The new trend in labor has become unionizing coffee shops, largely thanks to the efforts of Starbucks Workers United and, more recently, La Colombe workers with UFCW Local 400. Prior to my work at CLASP, I was an organizing barista at Compass Coffee, a local chain in D.C. As I shared this month during a segment on the labor-focused podcast the Rick Smith Show, my experience organizing cafes demonstrated that coffee organizing isn’t a fad. And it definitely isn’t incidental. Rather, it is the natural outcome of the lean production business model that we’ve seen across industries.

To be successful in the long term, policy advocates must recognize this sector as valuable and strategic for both organizing and labor policy. Coffee shop staff also need Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, legislation that would protect workers and fully fund the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) so it can most effectively uphold U.S. labor laws.

The new factory floor

When you think of a café, you probably imagine chic industrial tables, artisanal drinks, and the hip neighborhood barista. In reality, production squeeze has pushed coffee shops to operate more like a factory floor than a community gathering space.

In the past 20 years, coffee shops have adopted the same lean production model of operating procedures that began with Toyota. Today, this protocol is most highly recognized in Amazon’s draconian productivity policies. This involves productivity measures like:

  • Seeing how few workers can be scheduled on a shift while still getting the job done;
  • Tracking products through point-of-sale services, like Square, and using that to schedule shifts; or
  • Focusing on expanding and building new stores rather than investing in ones that already exist.

Employers lower costs by lowering job quality. Baristas across the board experience massive wage theft, underpayment, and volatile schedules. They also face a lack of access to hours and, therefore, to benefits. In addition, they contend with chronic understaffing and surveillance.

Cafés are critical to the labor movement

The same cultural images that obscure coffee shops’ poor job quality are the very things that play to its organizing strengths as an industry.

A lot of the organizing wave right now comes from coffee shops where the workers serve as the brand. Baristas are a PR tool for the company to sell its product. They are held to difficult standards and often have trouble speaking out against bad conditions because doing so would tarnish the brand.

Places like Starbucks, as well as small, indie coffee shops, gained popularity by embracing progressive values and promoting themselves as inclusive, progressive spaces—all while hiding terrible working conditions.

Coffee shops are effective places to organize

Coffee shops are a part of the food service industry, dominated by low-quality, low-paying jobs that BIPOC workers are pushed into. This means that coffee organizing can be a racial justice strategy. Additionally, a low job quality floor set for baristas means justification for a low floor for the entire service sector.

On top of that, coffee shops aren’t islands. They often include restaurants, bars, major wholesale, distribution, production, farming relationships, and partnerships. This makes it an industry that strategically intersects with the rest of the service sector, as well as logistics, distribution, wholesale, and agriculture.

Workers need greater federal support

What can help make these jobs better? Through unionization, baristas are proving that they can fight to improve their working lives, but they also need better laws.

Currently, companies are meeting the wave of worker organizing with relentless, illegal retaliation. Passing the PRO Act and providing greater funding to the NLRB would allow for harsher penalties for retaliation. These efforts would also give the NLRB more resources to investigate and prosecute bad actors.

However, this isn’t enough. We can’t ignore that our labor laws are reactive rather than proactive. It can’t just be on workers to assert their rights when they are violated. We need a government that supports the rights that the government itself has granted. Rather than reacting when harm is caused, NLRB funding needs to go toward strategic education, enforcement, and outreach measures to industries that face a high amount of labor violations paired with a low level of reporting those violations. This is a vital way for policymakers to publicly and unwaveringly promote organizing and allow workers to exercise their rights.

Several factors have expanded our cultural image of the unionizing worker to include industries like food service, hospitality, retail, and more. Wages have failed to keep up with inflation. Technology has forced workers to increase productivity. And labor laws have been gutted of efficacy.  At the same time, the service industry has rapidly grown and is expected to increase at a rapid rate of 9 percent in the next decade.

Coffee shops and related service sectors are the proving grounds for the strength of our labor movement. It’s time for policy advocates and the labor movement more broadly to value baristas’ contributions and for Congress to provide the federal supports all workers need.